Kees's notation on the Gadabout manuscript
Unlike their counterparts teaching creative writing in the many programs that were established at colleges and universities during the postwar years, Weldon Kees and a few other poets attempted a "third way" to supplement their incomes, following the example James Agee, a poet who had made it big in Hollywood. In November and December 1954, the Kees and Vincent McHugh sketched out a screen story for a movie titled Gadabout. They saw it as a B picture, which promised a hard-boiled detective story, pursuit, a smart and pretty newspaperwoman for a heroine, and a renegade scientist, with all the Cold War tension of The Third Man set mostly in San Francisco. Gadabout would be one of the first movies to be produced by Kees’s new studio, San Francisco Films.
All that survives of Gadabout the working notes for three sequences and a nearly half-hour reel-to-reel recording of a brainstorming session. The latter captures not only Kees’s passion for the project, but also an ambient electric saw from a construction site near his 1980 Filbert Street, the meowing of his cat "Lonesome," the clicking of his whiskey glass, and the shuffling of paper as both poets flesh out the storyline. A synopsis is impossible to reconstruct from either fragment. The principle characters, however, extrapolated from working notes and lists, reveal the variation on the noir aesthetic that Kees and McHugh had in mind:
The degree of authorship is unknown. But the tape would suggest that a division of labor had been established, with Kees being the idea man and McHugh in charge of developing various scenes.
Gadabout, as it stands, is hardly a finished work. The collaboration ended as Kees shifted his attention to other projects in early 1955, such as, writing torch songs, producing stage shows, plays, and making a documentary film about the Golden Gate Bridge. There Kees’s car was found abandoned in July of that year following a yearlong cycle of manic highs and lows. He was never seen again.
Presented here, Gadabout documents some of that imagination before he turned it toward Mexico or the bridge. It is also the coda for his poetry, from which he had strayed and which started with his passion for the movies. His first book’s first poem, “Subtitle,” makes that clear. The same memes present in his verse are fading away in the Gadabout fragments—the special effects, the pacing, the intrigue, murder, fatalism, alienation. One can see, too, that Kees is present in Gadabout much as he is in the poems, in this black-and-white filmic haze. Gadabout is an almost autobiographical film—and the reader can tell in what follows that McHugh has studied Kees and made it even more a portrait of his collaborator from various angles. Kees is present in Gadabout as the debonair spy and New York ad executive type from whom Don Draper’s DNA comes, an alter ego not unlike the hero of Kees’s Robinson poems. The street photographer could almost be Kees as the photographer of those images in his book Nonverbal Communication. And then there is the Ennis character, the manic, missing man being pursued in Gadabout. Ennis exists, I think, as Kees’s projection of what it would be like to escape one’s dissipated life, disappear from the country spirited away in a boat—to bleed out personal demons into creative work that would pay the bills and let him survive.
Ennis is also doomed man who will be murdered in the film over a secret formula. What this formula might be is suggested by a margin note in Kees’s hand, which may also suggest what might be one reason for Ennis’s mental state:
Lysergic Acid = administered by phony psychiatrist
These words suggest proverbial volumes about the nature of the Gadabout fragments that follow. LSD, of course, would have been known to Kees from the workplace. As a filmmaker and photographer at the Langley Porter Clinic, he would have heard and read about the early LSD research—both for its therapeutic as well as mind control potential and ethical problems this raised. But Gadabout should not be seen as evidence for the CIA’s MKULTRA LSD experiments in the Bay Area or the CIA-sponsored research at Langley Porter, which it seems to predate. Instead, it should be seen as what was already openly "in the air" and "shoptalk" among Kees’s Langley Porter milieu, which included his research partners, the anthropologist Gregory Bateson and the psychiatrist Jurgen Ruesch.
Bateson, of course, and his former wife, Margaret Mead, had a history with the CIA’s predecessor during the Second World War, the OSS. Bateson himself worked with the Macy Foundation in its cybernetic initiatives and with individuals who went on to do LSD research under the aegis of the foundation—either for therapeutic use or for the CIA’s effort to weaponize LSD. Among them was the psychiatrist Harold A. Abramson, who allegedly gave Bateson the drug in the late 1950s, when Bateson himself embarked on LSD-25 research at Stanford University. There the anthropologist really did get a poet involved in LSD. But it was Allen Ginsberg, one of Bateson’s early volunteers.
Gadabout, its margin note, and its theme of espionage and corrupt scientists should not be seen as a mere coincidence. It suggests the context, the preconditions for what ultimately happened in the San Francisco region. The real players in LSD research, the way dots connected between the ethical and unethical, and the ultimate revelations that came to light about the CIA’s LSD doping of unwilling individuals would not have surprised Kees—had he not disappeared.
One point on the initial sequence when Martha is walking up to the Campanile1 a hot rod crowded with hotrodders moves rapidly down the drive. A cat darts out in front of its headlights and the hotrodders swerve toward the cat to try to kill it. Martha goes over to the cat but the cat is dead.
Martha pulls up in front of her apartment house in S.F. It is now roughly eleven thirty at night. Here, certain mood shooting of the upper parts of the old Victorian bldgs. Martha gets out of the car and we dissolve to her coming into her apt. She is greeted by her roommate, a divorcee of the Glenda Farrell type.2
The house has many cats in it, seven or eight cats. There is some dialogue of complaint about how the cats have been acting. She also tells Martha that during the evening there have been repeated phone calls from a man who left his name. He is from N.Y. and is called Townsend Rudiger. This name rings a bell to Martha, a knowledgeable newspaperwoman. However, she is most intent upon finding Ennis. The roommate also tells Martha that there was a ring at the bell only fifteen minutes ago but she did not answer because she was afraid. At this point the telephone rings. Martha starts. The girlfriend answers it, says it’s for you. Martha takes it. It’s Rudiger, wanting her to go out with him and see the town.
We cut to Rudiger and introduce him in a telephone booth in a large hotel. He is in evening clothes and is a smoothie, a tassely golden Scott Fitzgerald type gone rotten. We cut back to Martha who agrees to go out with him and says she will be ready in half an hour. She hangs up. The roommate is getting ready for bed. Activity of cats. Martha petting cats. Martha thinks she hears a sound out in the street. She goes to window and draws the curtains. In front of the house a man is standing in darkness, a silhouette. As Martha looks down, his head turns and he looks up at her window. From far off the sound of fog horns and bells at sea. The man turns his head away and at that point a delivery truck, with "Flying Chopsui" painted on the side, pulls up. The man who has been standing there, picks up a basket containing dirty dishes and gets into the car. Conversation, very brief, between driver and man in Chinese. Very amused, good-natured, they drive off. Martha in close up, face expressing relief. She comes into the room feeling better, makes an affectionate gesture toward one of the cats. We cut back now as the camera with zoomar lens moves across st. and zooms up to a window of a house directly across from Martha’s.3 Seated at the window is a man only part of whose face can be seen. CUT.
Townsend Rudiger in taxi, pulls up in front of the house. Quick business of introductions, "do you know this one?" "Oh, yes, of course I remember him." All that sort of thing. Quick dissolves. Conversation. Where would you like to go? She wants to go to jazz joints where she thinks she might possibly run into or pick up information on Ennis. He is all for hitting such places as Place Pigalle, Algiers and so forth. She wins the argument. Quick sequences. S.F. atmosphere, Telegraph Hill, Hangover [Club], Embarcadero joints, Pier 23, Blackhawk, ending with Martha and Townsend seated at a table at the Tin Angel.4 Clancy Hayes with Scobey’s band on bandstand.5 Clancy sings theme tune, "Haunting." Cuts throughout Sequence III of Glenn McBain around but not observed by Martha or Townsend; planted in such a way that audience has ambiguous relation to McBain. Is he on Martha’s side or the people after the formula? At this point in the Tin Angel, after Clancy had completed his song, Martha talks to one of the waitresses who says that Ennis was in earlier and seemed in rocky shape. Said he might be back later. Martha, very tired. Townsend has to get up in the morning. Debatable whether to stay or not. Finally wait around for awhile but Ennis does not show. It is almost closing time. The waitresses are beginning to shake off the tablecloths and the musicians are getting bushed. They leave. They walk up the st. to hail a cab, and stand on the corner, waiting for a cab. Camera pans to the other side of the Embarcadero. We see a man rather dumpy, 35, shambling, a bit drunk, across the street. He comes into the Tin Angel. The place is almost deserted. The musicians are putting away their instruments. He climbs up to the bar and the bartenders says, "How are you, Helwig?" Helwig looks at the bartender, sand past the bartender, to his face in the mirror, and says "give me a double rye." The bartender says, "this is the last one." He pours him a drink, Helwig looks at the bartender and says, "Eddie, have you ever wanted to take the world and just," and at this point he cups his hands and presses them together. "Have you ever wanted to squeeze the world into a little tiny ball?" At a table behind, Chas. E. Forward is sitting, staring at the mirror. The light is reflected off his glasses—sinister.
Transcript of the Gadabout tape
Note: Abrupt transitions in the conversation are denoted by em dashes; long pauses by ellipses; and bracketed notes are used for other conventions used in this transcription.
Vincent McHugh: That might be best.
Weldon Kees: Alright. Let’s recap a little on that. Anyway, we do know that he’s a very worried man. Somebody is putting the finger on him.
VM: This is Ennis?
WK: Ennis is a worried man. Somebody has the finger on him for dough. It’s blackmail or some sort of squeeze. It’s either—
VM: This happens after he leaves the laboratory.
WK: It’s something that’s been gathering weight, been taking on pressure for a long time.
WK: He’s had inklings.
VM: Or is he just the kind of weakie who wants something so badly that how he gets it won’t—What would he want? What, to get away? Suppose he wanted to get away so badly—
WK: He can’t get away. This is a security job. This is such a top security job, you know they won’t let you quit.
VM: No. That’s right. And you can’t leave the country.
WK: And you can’t leave the country.
WK: In a way his conflict is he has begun . . .
VM: But suppose he wants to leave the country and he wants to leave it so badly that he’s willing to risk the security angle—
WK: That’s right.
VM: —and if he’s going to sell out the secret, he is certainly willing to risk the security angle.
WK: These guys can get him on a boat and get him to—across the Pacific in no time, if he just says the word. All he needs to do is write out this equation.
VM: That’s why he wants to go. He wants to go to Tahiti or . . . some place less obvious, Port Moresby6 or—
WK: That’s right.
VM: —or, or Indonesia or—
WK: Or something like that. He doesn’t want a—
VM: He’s running away from himself.
WK: He just wants to take his . . .
VM: But that doesn’t make too much sense.
WK: Well, it’s better than some—
VM: It makes better psychological sense, but it doesn’t make dramatic sense.
WK: It doesn’t make dramatic sense. No. It would be better if there was somebody in Port Moresby that he’s got to get to.
VM: I know a funny story about that. There was a guy who was in China with the Air Force during the war. A fellow I knew. And he said that he knew positively where there was Nationalist gold cached in the mountains—
VM: —that they’ve not been able to get to. He said if he could get a pack train in there, and that is the only way to get to it, he could get it even now. And his theory was that it might even be possible to bribe the Communist officials and get in there now.
WK: On the other hand, couldn’t it, wouldn’t it be, make better dramatic sense to have this guy want something else? This guy really wants power. He’s really jealous as hell of our girl’s father. I mean, he’d like to take the credit for this. He’s done most of the work. The old man is really a good scientist, but he doesn’t—
VM: A coordinator.
WK: He’s a coordinator. He doesn’t have the genius that Ennis has. I think that’s better.
WK: But then we could have this scene, which we plant early in the picture, where we pick him up. And he goes into the Tin Angel, to hear some music, and he’s talking, and he has a couple drinks and he gets a little out of hand, and he says to the bartender: "Did you ever have the feeling that you’d just like to take the whole world and squeeze it to death?"
VM: That’s a good line. Yeah, yeah, that’s a good line.
WK: And then the band picks up right after that.
VM: Hmm. Very good.
WK: Squeeze it in one ball, and you have, you pan the camera around, and Scobey is just picking up his trumpet, and he blows the introduction . . . to “Dippermouth.”7
WK: Something like that.
VM: Yeah, it’s a very good line in the sense of . . . in the sense of a crushed-down resentment—
WK: We don’t need Ennis in this scene.
WK: This is a short scene, which comes right after—
VM: What about this, Weldon? Let’s face this right off.
WK: Yeah, sure.
VM: Do we stay on the girl’s line or do we bat her out? This is your main problem, I mean in the story—
WK: In the girl’s motivation?
VM: No, no. Do we stay with the girl all the time?
WK: Oh no, we can’t do that. It makes for much too boring a picture—
WK: —if you stay with one person all of the time.
WK: I think M . . . That was the trouble with M.8
VM: What about that one, that one Montgomery did, in which the audience—?9
WK: It gets to be a drag. Your eye gets tired of looking. I don’t care who it is. As far as movies go, you can’t stay, you’ve got to keep cutting. You’ve got to keep cutting all the time. It makes for more fast moving stuff.
VM: Yeah, you’ve got to keep cutting.
WK: It makes for more excitement—
WK: —and that way if you know where one person is all the time, you’ve lost something in terms of dramatic tension. You might as well do a stage play.
VM: No, I don’t agree there. But I agree that you’ve got to have a lot of intercutting for this kind of thing.
WK: Oh, intercutting, yeah, of course.
WK: But I think if you cut back and forth, I don’t think you can stay with her all the time. After all, you can get something. The audience has got to know where she is part of the time. And the only way you can do it is to get away from her part of the time. The thing is—we’re at Neiman’s and talking about this—is we’ve got a divided business going on with her.10 She’s got two assignments: She’s got her newspaper job, and she’s got this assignment for the old man.
WK: Now, I think what we better do is decide what’s going to happen here. I—couldn’t he say: "You’re going on vacation day after tomorrow, aren’t you?" or "tomorrow, and you can get on this for me?"
VM: Oh, but that removes our motivation for having her go to all sorts of places not connected with her, with her, uh . . . quest.
WK: I see.
VM: The spot at the beach, for example, she’s going out there to take a look at the amusement park in the off-season.11 See, she’s walking along the seawall.
VM: Things like that.
WK: Did it stop you a little while?
VM: No, I—
WK: It’s a good device.
VM: Yeah, because, after all, she wouldn’t spend all her time at that, I mean—
VM: That’s the role of the vacation thing, it would—
VM: I got another gimmick there—
VM: —which is very good, I think. She has a "futures file" . . . in the office.
WK: She turns a card that says, uh, "Remember to, uh, remember to check the, uh, amusement park at the beach in the off-season." The gulls, the children, . . . all, all sorts of odd characters out there—
WK: That’s right.
VM: See? Then she hits the odd—then we hit the odd characters. And the funhouse with the, with the really terrifying globbing figures walking around it, you see.
WK: That Norman Foster used12—
WK: —yeah, in Woman on the Beach, and they used that an awful lot in that Hitchcock picture that Robert Walker was in.13
VM: There were some new rides, though, that we might be able to use.
WK: Some new rides, maybe, yeah.
VM: But the human grisliness of those figures—
WK: Oh yeah.
WK: And we mustn’t forget that windmill.14 Nobody’s ever used that windmill before.
WK: And let’s not forget the house down the street here with the turrets on it. She’s got to—
VM: Oh, there’s a wonderful theater on Polk, the Alhambra, with the lighted turrets at night.15 Do you know that place?
WK: No. No I don’t think I do.
VM: There’s another point I thought of, just a tiny point, an audience identification point. Some of these foreign cars have three taillights in line—
VM: —which makes a wonderful identification for her car. One, two, three, you know?
WK: Let’s not forget. Did you jot down that business I had about going down to the—we get her down to the sports car races in Pebble Beach around about reel seven—
WK: —and that’s when our big chase starts. And we can get . . . go into a . . . I think a chase in that beehive down south. You know those tract houses where everything looks alike?
VM: Oh yeah, yeah.
WK: I think a chase around in that country would be wonderful. I don’t think anything like that has ever been done.
VM: Where are these races? I remember now.
WK: There down at Pebble Beach, and that has some marvelous stuff down there. The windblown pines and—
WK : —the woods down there, and movie stars’ homes. Well, she could go down there to do a double assignment. She’s going down there to check with Crosby16 and also covers the, uh, sports-car races.
VM: Yeah, yeah. You might get her in the bocce ball court.
WK: Oh yeah, I think that’s essential.
VM: And somebody tosses one of those balls. You know the way they toss them?
WK: Oh yeah.
VM: And just misses her.
VM: Yeah. They, they are really kind of terrifying.
WK: Oh they are, sure.
VM: The way they toss them, they must toss them, oh, 75 yards, I guess.
WK: And as long as we’ve got these cats, could there be a scene one night when the cats get all out of line and there’s a hell of a cat fight?
VM: Yeah, yeah.
WK: In the apartment.
VM: Well, they’ll go wild if you leave them alone too long.
WK: Sure they will.
VM: They’ll tear everything apart.
WK: Oh, I know what would work, Vince. There is this night when her roommate has a hell of a scene with one of her boyfriends. It’s late at night, and our girl has come home from covering, uh, somebody at the Fairmont.17 And she walks in on this fight between these two people, and this guy is slapping the girl, and this girl is hysterical, and the room is in great disorder, . . . and our girl, uh, is beginning to be aware that there is a man in this room across the street from her, and everything is squeeze play, and this guy that follows her around, Robert Ryan18—she’s all mixed up with him and doesn’t know whether she’s in love with him or not, and she comes in and this fight starts, and the cats just go crazy, go crawling all over the room.
VM: Yeah, yeah, uh . . . What else did I think of there?
WK: Now, there’s one switch, Vince. Robert Ryan—What’s his name? Dean?—
VM: Dean. Yeah. Call him Dean.19
WK: Dean is the top secret agent from the foreign power, isn’t he?
VM: No, uh, I wouldn’t say so.
WK: I think I’d do that.
WK: Or she’s got to think he is up until about the end of it.
VM: She may very well think there is something phony about him, yes. But, uh, I think that for our establishing of the real world outside her hallucinations, we must have him on the "square." The audience must, uh—
WK: —must identity with him—
VM: Yeah. I think so.
WK: —as some sort of symbol of dignity and trust.
VM: Yeah, yeah, I had that feeling anyhow. . . . Now what about these other guys? Uh . . . what about the line of action for these foreign agents?
WK: They . . . have an inkling, not through Ennis, but through another line they’ve got.
VM: They know about Ennis?
WK: They know about Ennis is the man to get to. They know that Ennis is weak. Ennis’ psychiatrist is a complete sellout to them. Ennis’ psychiatrist is a guy who is on dope. He’s a completely corrupt man. He’s a guy who sleeps with his woman patients. He’s a phony Freudian. There is a scene in which, uh, the psychiatrist, uh, I mean this Freudian analyst, uh, is having the pressure put on him to help somebody out, and he says, "It’s $25 an hour with me, boys, that’s the way I’ve always worked." He points up at the wall and here’s a picture of Freud, and he says, "I got it straight from the master."
VM: Psychiatrists are going to think we had a bad time with somebody.
WK: Well, we can do something to indicate that all psychiatrists are not like this. This man is a—I wonder if Ralf Harolde is still around?20 Do you remember him?
WK: God, he would just be masterly for this. He had a face that was so . . . just right.
VM: I got a pal, George Bennett, who would make a wonderful heavy.
VM: He’s an ex-Golden Gloves fighter and an ex-, uh, an ex-Navy chief.
VM: And for a sapping job or anything like that, he really has practical experience.21
WK: Well, I think the head of, uh, the foreign powers, the secret agent, should be so smooth. I think he is a, a graduate of Princeton. Uh, he is just so nice to everybody.
VM: Here’s a switch: suppose he is the guy who represents himself as the executive of a big advertising agency?
WK: She wants a job with him, maybe?
VM: No, but he’s offering money to her for the secret. Money or whatever.
WK: But she doesn’t have it.
VM: No, but he doesn’t know that. And he thinks she can get it. Uh—
WK: —Well, that’s it, Vince! Here’s how we plan it! Dad says to her in the second or third sequence, whatever it is, episode, he gives her the letter he’s written to his friend, and he says, "Will you mail this to me?" And we plant the idea that she’s being watched during that, and they think that what Father has given to her is not a letter to mail, but . . . the actual formula.
VM: Yeah. In any case they feel that she’s so close, they can . . . she probably knows about it. They can get it out of her. But the idea of the foreign agent guy, uh, being . . . impersonating the advertising executive, which is a perfectly plausible notion.
WK: But it’s the same thing.
VM: Yeah, yeah.
WK: Two greatest kinds of cons in history.22
VM: The snowmen.23
WK: Yeah, the snowman.
VM: We must write a picture sometime called The Snowmen.
WK: (laughs) Well, in the sketch that Barbara and I are writing for the revue, the guy who is the agent for the singer of popular ballads is named "Snowdon."24
VM: How do you get the radio station into this? I haven’t—
WK: Oh, that’s easy. She goes to the radio station to cover—no, I would make that a television show.
VM: Yeah, but I’d like to keep it in KPFA.25
WK: Oh, at KPFA. I was thinking you could do a satire on a new TV show, and you have a real awful comic, somebody like Red Skelton, or even funnier would be one of these ukulele players with the Relaxol26, and our advertising executive is very much interested in this show. They might even use this comic as a way of getting messages to each other.
VM: Yeah, of course that’s a possibility.
WK: They say, "If so-and-so plays 'Yes Sir, That’s My Baby' on the ukulele you know what that means, fellas"?
VM: We’re in.
VM: I like this advertising executive idea that you have.
WK: Oh, I think he’s got to be there.
VM: Yeah. And then the other guy is, is straight goods, the personnel manager.
VM: But we don’t know which is which. I mean the audience doesn’t know which is—
WK: The advertising guy is awfully understanding, isn’t he?
VM: Well, he’s a, a big front man, but a very smooth, bland hand with women. Big expense account romance—
WK: Oh yes.
VM: —at the best places. Money’s no object.
WK: That’s right.
VM: In fact it’s—
WK: Drives a Cadillac.
VM: Sure, sure. And he has—
WK: No, drives a . . . a Mark VII.27
VM: Does he? Well, this is a New York boy. Maybe he just goes around in a cab. I don’t know, but . . . he’s in form New York, see?
WK: But he has to be cast entirely different from the way they’ve been doing this sort of thing. Mankiewicz has an actor in, uh, in The Barefoot Contessa, and he was trying for one of these real cold millionaires, and the actor wasn’t good enough.28 I think I would like to see this man a little more silky. He’s like, uh, corn tassels. That’s his act.
VM: Oh, this guy is Princeton 1928.
WK: He’s the golden boy. He’s a completely corrupt Scott Fitzgerald.
VM: Yeah, yeah!
WK: That sort of thing.
VM: Yeah, this is a Scott Fitzgerald character who survived and went big.
WK: And went big, yeah.
VM: Yeah, and he’s gathered no moss. I mean, he’s a—
WK: From any side.
VM: No, he’s really got polished on the way a little more.
WK: And he’s the guy who really wants the power. I mean the kind of power Ennis wants—this man, our advertising man, do we have a name for him?
VM: Yeah, but how do we hook him up with the idea that—
WK: We’ve got to get him in fairly early in the picture.
VM: Yeah, but how do we hook him up with the idea, with the idea that this is the head of the foreign agents?
WK: Well, I think that can be . . . I don’t think you need to plant it. I think you need to suggest it.
VM: His name is Townsend Rudiger.
WK: Oh yes, good ol’ Townie. I think you do it through a—
VM: The private dick’s name is Harry Peyrel.
WK: Uh-huh. How’s that again?
VM: Harry Peyrel.
WK: It’s too close to "payroll."
VM: Yeah, that’s it. It’s the French for "payroll."
WK: Can you pronounce it "pay-rell"?
WK: Pay-rell, then it wouldn’t be so poor.
VM: Sure, sure. Head coach is Rabbit Pullman.
WK: Uh-huh. Yeah.
VM: Two other laboratory technicians are S. B. Heiss and Russell Labnik. The girl’s father is Professor Bliss Culburt Allen. . . . She’s Hester Allen, Leslie Allen, Lispenaud29 Allen—
WK: Leslie’s good.
VM: Lispenaud . . . for a columnist.
WK: Leslie when it’s a girl.
WK: Has too much connotation with "lesbian."
VM: Yeah. Hester [unintelligible]?
WK: I don’t like that either.
VM: Lispenaud. Lispy.
WK: Not good.
VM: Yeah, a good girl’s name, but not for her.
VM: Joe Dettrick is the street photographer.
WK: The big problem now is in terms of cutting shifts . . . and I think the only way we can do that now, Vince, is to sit down and map it out à la Jamesian instructions of the big novels. We’ve got have a wheel or three or four wheels and start rotating them. And we’ve got to know where she is, where the boyfriend is, where Ennis is, where, uh, the advertising guy is. Those are people and the dick across the street. And I’d like to see one scene, which can be an awfully nice acting . . . assignment for a man, the dick across the street, after she has gone to bed, and he is waiting around for his relief, and he is just tired as hell doing nothing. He’s got the radio on low. Maybe he’s fixing himself a, a cheese sandwich and—
VM: —Is this the dick across the street in the apartment?
WK: Yeah, it’s her father’s dick.
VM: I thought this was the foreign agent.
WK: . . . No, she thinks that he is after her. But he really is the guy her father had put on to watch her because not only does he know she is pretty paranoid girl, he’s got to have her help. But while he is away, he’s got to have somebody looking out for her.
WK: Because he knows, he knows, he’s got inklings. Everything’s been happening. He thinks his phone’s tapped. It is tapped, of course, big security stuff. J. Edgar Hoover is listening in on him all the time.
WK: But in addition to that there are other inklings. I mean, he could have heard from Washington directly to watch out. That they know there’s a risk. I think that’s the way to do it. He’s got to know very early in the picture, or tell her. He said, "Only yesterday, the reason I, uh, have to get to Washington so fast is that they’re scared. They know there are people are people right here in San Francisco who are after this, and they think they know who they are. But, but you know, they don’t . . . maybe they do and maybe even they . . . you know, the FBI will never give you a straight story." . . . Couldn’t he say—does she see him off at the plane, Vince?
WK: What do you want to do, play back?
VM: No, cut for a minute.
[Audible click at 21 minutes—the recorder is turned off—then the audible click of it being turned on again.]
VM: Yeah, Ennis is traditionally well bred. He comes from a well-bred family, has the usual American ethical background, which is unpredictable lapses.
WK: He could go anywhere like Elder30 did.
VM: Like the rest of us, yeah.
WK: Depending on what kind of woman he got mixed up with.
VM: Oh, I don’t know about that . . . how far, how unethical he is, basically, in this way.
WK: I don’t mean unethical. But he is a . . .
WK: . . . a moody man, isn’t he?
VM: Yeah, yeah. Unpredictable, let’s say.
WK: Uh-huh. Now, if her father told her to see what she can find out about Ennis, wouldn’t he say to her uh . . . Well, you know, what is Ennis’s first name, Charlie?
VM: I’ve got it here somewhere. Let’s see, uh, . . . where is it?
WK: You don’t have a name like Monroe Ennis?
VM: Helwig Ennis.
WK: Helwig Ennis, yeah. You know how Helwig is. He’s an unpredictable guy. And . . . you know the sort of places he’s apt to hang out. One night may be he’s down listening to Dave Brubeck. Another night he wants to get way off someplace and he’s got that little place up in Corte Madera.31
WK: And then he’s been going up and down the coast a lot.
VM: And he hangs out in the Tenderloin.32
WK: He hangs out in the Tenderloin and he’s all over.
VM: He gets [unintelligible] in bars.
WK: He has an ex-wife, doesn’t he?
VM: She’s after him.
WK: Who’s on Telegraph Hill?33
VM: She’s after him for money.
WK: She’s after him for everything.
VM: Yeah, yeah. Then, he’s mixed up with girls.
WK: That’s right. And once in a while—and then he’s got this, uh, scientific friend of his who has gotten out of everything altogether who lives down in Monterey.
VM: Yeah, yeah. And just before the end, of course, Ennis is found dead.
WK: Oh, absolutely!
VM: In the basement.
WK: From some very odd garroting maybe.
VM: And there are indications he’s been tortured.
VM: And the boyfriend34 and the girl go to the morgue to identify him.
WK: Yes, yes.
VM: And then the last sequence takes off from that point.
WK: Uh-huh. Oh, couldn’t her father say to her, "The one man, I think, who would know more than anyone else about where Helwig might be is his psychiatrist. But he has never—I know he is going to a psychiatrist, but I don’t know who this psychiatrist is . . . "
VM: Yes. I’ve got this sequence on Ennis . . . the one about the . . . the street photographer.
WK: Oh yeah.
VM: I’ll read you that one.
WK: Let’s have it.
VM: Ocean walk on the beach, along the wall in the fog.35 The street photographer takes her picture, offers it. She shakes her head walking slowly past. He thanks her. As she passes him, he, unmoving, without turning his head, says, "You look sad. Your face is crying like the gods." She stops. He half turns to her. She asks for the card. He gives it to her and tells her how to fill it out. While she is writings, she says, "You frightened me. You look like death coming out of the fog." He says in the same tone, "That’s because you had death in your eye. No. I’m not death. I am life. I am a repository of life. Everybody pours his life all over me." She has turned toward the wall writing on it. He turns with her. "Everybody’s afraid. You’re afraid. What are you afraid of?" She pays him, takes the receipt, says without looking at him: "I think somebody is following me." He looks as if he had not heard. They both look toward a man down the walk, leaning on the wall, just at the edge of vision in the fog. Cameraman says, "Go up the hill and wait for me at the Chinese idol. Ten minutes." She touches his arm, "You won’t get hurt?" Without looking at her, he says, "I won’t get hurt. Do you know who I am? I’m the last free man left in the world."
WK: Hmm-hmmm. Yeah!
VM: The camera follows her up the long slope to Cliff House36 to where her car is parked. She waits beside the idol’s bulging belly.37 A man passes her, goes up the walk a little way. She puts money in the box for crippled children, rubs the idol’s belly, then looks around half self-consciously, half apprehensively. The man who has passed her is watching from the doorway of one of the shops above. The photographer comes strolling up the hill, cap pushed back, some cards in his hand. He takes her arm, leading her into the bar, stops, says, "You don’t mind?"—indicating his gear. She shakes her head smiling. He takes his cap off, unstraps the camera, sits down with her, holds the cards out. He has taken pictures of the next five people who came along after her. She offers to buy them. He says, "No, you’ll get the pictures." He says, "Number one-oh-oh-seven-three-two, middle-aged dark man, looks like a Hungarian, Magyar of some kind, about forty-five, uh, he has a crushed ear, his right ear—
VM: —as if with a heavy blow. Number two—and she—and he describes number two. Number three, woman with a baby carriage. Number four . . . " as he begins to describe number four, uh, she realizes that it’s Ennis. She sits up tense. He goes on describing him. She says—the photographer says, "He’s the only one who bought. I’ve got his name and address." He shows her the card.
VM: The card says Helwig Ennis and gives an address out in the Sunset District.38
VM: He says the fifth—he hasn’t moved his head at all, he hasn’t seemed to be looking anywhere—he says the fifth is outside the window looking at you.
WK: Fine. Now I’ve got something.
VM: Now wait! She looks—
VM: —and it’s the boyfriend. She starts half out of the seat to speak to him, to call him. He turns, gets into a car, and drives off toward town.
VM: So . . . they go to the home of the fourth man.
VM: They find the address in the Sunset. One of those houses like every other house out there.39
VM: They kind of walk around casually. They try the back door, the cellar door. It’s open. They walk in and hide in the front room. After a while, a car comes up the drive. A man gets out, walks up the front steps, opens the door with his key, and walks in. And when he gets inside and turns on the light, he takes a bottle out of a cupboard, pours himself a drink, has the drink in his hand. And she gets up and says, "Helwig." He drops the drink and has a gun out of shoulder holster like that.
VM: He says nothing. The photographer is on his feet too by that time, walking toward him. He says nothing, backs out the back door into the car, [unintelligible] and out.
WK: Good. Now, we need to plant Helwig earlier . . . after . . . after she . . . uh . . . comes home. You know the scene where we have the two men out in the street.
WK: There should be—we cut away to just a guy in a car. This is Helwig. And he is racing up the road in his car towards, on the highway . . .
For the tape recording and screenplay of Gadabout by Weldon Kees and Vincent McHugh transcribed by James Reidel: Copyright © 1954 by the estate of Weldon Kees, published with permission of The Jane Pope Geske Heritage Room of Nebraska Authors, Lincoln City Libraries, Lincoln, Nebraska.
1 Campanile, i.e., the Sather Tower, a bell and clock tower, on the campus of the University of California–Berkeley. Kees, in the weeks before is disappearance in July 1955, had contemplated jumping off the Sather Tower, a well-known suicide point.
2 Glenda Farrell type, Glenda Farrell (1904–1971) personified the wise-cracking, hard-boiled, dizzy blonde of the early talkies.
3 zoomar, i.e., the Zoomar lens invented by Dr. Frank G. Back for use with a 16-mm. movie camera. Zoomar zoom lenses were later adapted for early television cameras. This is an excellent hint to show how Kees intended to photograph this film using what was then the equivalent of handheld cameras.
4 Place Pigalle, . . . Tin Angel, all well-known San Francisco nightclubs, bars, restaurants, as well as districts known for their nightlife and demimonde.
5 Clancy Hayes with Scobey’s band, Bob Scobey (1916–1963) and his Frisco Jazz Band featured not only his trumpet playing but the banjo and vocals of Clancy Hayes (1908–1972).
6 Capital of Papua, New Guinea.
7 Dippermouth, Dixieland standard by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band.
8 M, i.e., Dial M for Murder (1954), a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, and Robert Cummings.
9 Montgomery, i.e., Robert Montgomery (1904–1981), actor and director. The film referenced here is Ride the Pink Horse (1947).
10 Neiman’s, Kees interjects this, to remind McHugh where they are in the basic narrative.
11 amusement park in the off season, Playland by the Beach, the seaside amusement park that once occupied a ten-acre site next to Ocean Beach on San Francisco’s far west side.
12 Norman Foster, Foster (1903–1976), film director
13 Woman on the Beach . . . Hitchcock picture, WK alludes to two film noir motion pictures, Woman on the Run (1950), a starring Ann Sheridan and Dennis O’Keefe, and Strangers on a Train (1951), based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel.
14 windmill, one of the two massive Dutch-style windmills in Golden Gate Park.
15 Alhambra, a San Francisco landmark movie. Kees refers to its Moorish towers.
16 Crosby, i.e., in regard to the golf tournament hosted by Bing Crosby, which is the forerunner of the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
17 Fairmont, a luxury hotel at 950 Mason Street, atop Nob Hill.
18 Robert Ryan (1909–1963), a film actor who performed in noir pictures that Kees admired, which is why he imagines Ryan in this role.
19 Call him Dean, WK means the Townsend Rudiger character.
20 Ralf Harolde (1899–1974), character actor.
21 sapping job, to beat someone up with blackjack and the like.
22 two greatest cons, i.e., espionage and advertising.
23 snowmen, admen, PR men, and the like, derived from the term snow job.
24 Barbara and I . . . , i.e., Barbara Brockway, one of Kees’s collaborators on yet another venture, a sitcom-revue for television titled Helm’s Hideway, starring Kees’s friend and music collaborator, clarinetist Bob Helm.
25 KPFA, call letters of San Francisco’s progressive community radio station.
26 Relaxol, over-the-counter laxative.
27 Mark VII, Jaguar luxury sports sedan, the kind of car that appealed to WK.
28 Mankiewicz . . . The Barefoot Contessa, i.e., Joseph Mankiewicz (1909–1993), who directed the 1954 film starring Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner.
29 Lispenaud, The spelling of this name is guesswork, based on VM’s insistent pronunciation and his foregoing concoction of a Gallic name.
30 Elder, i.e., Donald Elder, a senior editor at Doubleday who knew Kees in New York.
31 Corte Madera, a town in rural Marin County.
32 Tenderloin, part of downtown San Francisco known for its vice, including burlesque theaters, strip clubs, and seedy bars.
33 Telegraph Hill, a San Francisco district north of downtown and a bohemian and intellectual enclave not unlike New York’s Greenwich Village.
34 boyfriend, i.e., Joe Dettrick, the street photographer.
35 Ocean walk . . . , this sequence takes place on Ocean Beach, at the western edge of San Francisco, the site of an amusement park as well as other attractions.
36 Cliff House, landmark San Francisco restaurant perched on the headland above the cliffs just north of Ocean Beach.
37 She waits beside the idol’s bulging belly, a statue of the Chinese god Budai, a former tourist attraction.
38 Sunset District, San Francisco’s west side.
39 One of those houses like every other house . . . , a reference to the tract housing that is common in the Sunset District.
The American poet WELDON KEES (1914–1955?) published three books of poetry, which are included in The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees, edited by Donald Justice. Kees’s life, work, and disappearance are the subject of the biography Vanished Act by the poet James Reidel, published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2003.