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Max Allan Collins

Majic Man

But shrieks that fly

Piercing and wild, and loud, shall mourn the tale….”

-Sophocles, translated by William Mackworth Praed

“I am a victim of the Washington scene.”

-James V. Forrestal America’s first Secretary of Defense

The leaves were turning, but a humid summer heat hung on, a nasty, sticky reminder that our nation’s capital-with its languorous “y’all” cadence, profusion of shade trees, and palatial private homes-was still a provincial Southern town, right down to the squalor of its colored slums. The strict segregation here made my Chicago look like a pillar of racial equality, and even worse, there was no air-conditioning.

Getting around Washington in my blue two-door rental Ford sedan was a mystery not easily solved even by Nathan Heller, President of the A-1 Detective Agency (corner of Van Buren and Plymouth in the Loop, second floor). Laid out like spokes on a wheel around the hub of Capitol Hill, the primary sections of the city were labeled after the compounded cardinal points of the compass-NW, SW, NE and SE.

But only that NW corner of the city seemed to count, everything interesting crammed into it, from movie palaces like Loew’s Capitol to department stores like Garfinckel’s, from restaurants like Olmstead’s to hotels like the Ambassador, where I was staying. Along NW’s 16th Street and Massachusetts Avenue were sixty or so embassies and chancelleries, not to mention various union headquarters and trade associations. The closest thing to D.C. having a Main Stem was NW’s F Street where 14th Street crossed it; but even there, any night including Saturday, the lights were dim, sidewalks rolled up, most restaurants closing by eight p.m.

The only action was the occasional cocktail lounge, like the Ambassador’s High Hat; first-class hookers and bored government girls made it easy to get cheaply and/or casually laid in that town; or so I understand (besides which, bubbly blonde Jeannie who worked at the Farm Credit Administration has nothing to do with this story).

Many of the important politicians who didn’t live in suburban Virginia or Maryland lived in NW, including most congressmen, as well as the client who’d summoned me here-James Vincent Forrestal, who rented a big colonial house on Woodland Drive, behind the swanky Shoreham Hotel and overlooking the leafy vastness of Rock Creek Park.

From a modest Irish Catholic background, Jim Forrestal had stormed the Anglo-Saxon bastion of Wall Street to become a key player at the powerful investment banking firm of Dillon, Read amp; Company, eventually becoming president. In 1940 he traded that million-dollar-a-year position for a one-dollar-a-year job as one of President Franklin Roosevelt’s administrative assistants. Not long ago Forrestal had been appointed Under Secretary of the Navy, and was currently applying his considerable managerial skills to mobilization and production.

This was the second job I’d done for Forrestal this year. The first one was a freelance Naval Intelligence job, which even today is classified; despite that mission’s failure, I had apparently impressed Forrestal to the degree that he’d chosen to hire me again.

A butler tried unsuccessfully to take my hat and showed me to a book-lined study, where Forrestal sat behind a massive mahogany desk, leaning back, smoking his pipe, a thick, brownbindered document in his hands like a hymnal. The desk was littered with file folders and loose paper, as well as several stacks of imposingly thick books (Outline of History by H. G. Wells, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years by Carl Sandburg), mingling with a banker’s lamp, framed family photos, pipe rack-and-humidor, candy jar, and ashtray.

Forrestal was as tidy as his desk was cluttered: three-piece Brooks Brothers double-breasted gray worsted, gray-and-blue striped four-in-hand tie. My navy-blue tropical suit from Sears was lightweight and, theoretically, cool; but I was working up a sauna sweat, the windows closed, the chamber stuffy with the memory of stale pipe smoke. Forrestal seemed aloof from such petty matters as climate.

I approached the waiting chair opposite Forrestal, who rose and flipped the binder onto the desk, extending his hand. Surprising power resided in the small man’s grip, a fact he tried a little too hard to demonstrate. Standing perhaps five inches shorter than my six feet, Forrestal-slender, fit, late forties-draped himself in the controlled dignity of the statesman, but any air of elitist intellectualism was offset by the battered features of his spade- shaped face, with its broad flattened nose (he’d boxed at Princeton) and lipless slash of a mouth over a ball-like cleft chin.

“Thank you for coming, Nate,” he said, fixing his intense blue-gray eyes on me.

“I wouldn’t have,” I admitted, settling into the hard captain’s-style chair, “if your telegram hadn’t specified this was personal.”

His mouth seemed faintly amused around the pipe stem. “Not interested in government work?”

“No. And I hope this wasn’t a ruse to get me back working for Navy Intelligence …”

He shook his head. “This is a private matter, Nate … though when we get into this war, I may call on you again-to serve your country.”

There wasn’t a war, not yet, so I just asked, “What sort of private matter?”

“My wife,” he said, and he turned one of the framed photos toward me. “Josephine.”

It was a rather exotic photo, dating I guessed to the late twenties or early thirties: a raven-haired beauty in an Oriental-pattern frock clutched a large reflective glass ball, like an absurdly oversize Christmas ornament.

“Well, she’s lovely,” I said.

And she was: a lanky, elegant woman with large dark eyes and bee-stung lips in an almond-shaped face, the dark hair bobbed in the Jazz Age fashion, a pale beauty in the manner of Louise Brooks or the early Myrna Loy.

“She’s still quite lovely,” he said, with all the warmth of a scientist describing a microbe. “Jo is an unusual woman. Unfortunately, at present, she’s like a fine Swiss watch whose mainspring has been too tightly wound.”

“I’m not sure I follow you, sir.”

The gray-blue eyes stared blankly at me for a few moments, then he said, matter-of-factly, “Let me share a bit about her background.”

In my business, I talked to plenty of husbands with cheating wives or otherwise troubled marriages, and no matter how hard they tried to suppress it, the emotion showed through. Not this guy.

“Jo’s a Southern girl, and well-bred,” he said, gesturing with pipe in hand, “but she’s always had a rebel streak. She didn’t finish college, rather became a Ziegfeld Follies chorus girl. The editor of Vogue met her at a party, was impressed by her wit and charm, and soon Jo was modeling, then writing a monthly column.”

That explained the photo: it could easily have been snipped from those smart, pretentious pages.

“I met her at a party myself and, like that Vogue editor, was impressed,” he said. “Witty, fashionable, sharp as a tack…. I’d never met anyone quite like her. Never have since.”

Some admiration had crept in his tone now, but still no emotion or, for that matter, affection.

I asked, “How long have you been married?”

“Since nineteen twenty-five. We have two sons.” He turned another of the framed photos toward me, displaying two handsome dark-haired lads perhaps seven and ten, wearing short-pants school uniforms with ties and caps, attire no more humiliating than getting tarred and feathered.

“Nice-looking boys,” I said.

He nodded and turned the photo back his way, never mentioning them by name. To call this guy a cold fish was to give a dead mackerel a bad rap.

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