“The curtain was just going up on the evening performance of ‘The Record Breakers,’ burlesque show at the Hyperion Theatre, in New Haven, the other night, when some one called the theatre on the telephone and asked for Manager W. D. Fitzgerald.
‘This is Mr. Frederick F. Brewster,’ said a dignified voice when Mr. Fitzgerald picked up the receiver.
Now, Frederick F. Brewster is a multi-millionaire and a prominent member of Connecticut society – hardly the man who woul be calling up a burlesque theatre – and Manager Fitzgerald was quite naturally excited. He immediately asked ‘Mr. Brewster’ if there was anything he could do for him.
‘Why yes,’ replied the voice. ‘I am in quite a difficulty. I have a number of week-end guests up at my place on Whitney avenue and, to tell you the truth, one of them is behaving rather badly. The fact is he is intoxicated. Perhaps you know who he is – Mr. Harry Payne Whitney, of New York.’
Manager Fitzgerald was shocked. He had often heard of Harry Payne Whitney, the millionaire society leader and racehorse owner, and it pained him somehow to hear this report of his strange behavior. Of course, he had no way of knowing that the real Mr. Whitney never drinks at all and was nowhere near New Haven on that particular night. So he felt a great deal of sympathy for Mr. Brewster in his distressing predicament and wondered how on earth he could help him out.
‘Thought I might send him down to your theatre, if you’d kindly take care of him until he – er – straightens up. I’ll appreciate the favor if you’ll look after him.’
Manager Fitzgerald was delighted at the opportunity to do a favor for two very influential men at one time, and when a slightly shaky but otherwise distinguished looking gentleman in evening dress appeared at the theatre, he made a great deal of his opportunity. The eager manager had an entire box reserved, right near the stage, and he would not take a cent from his guest.
‘Keep your money,’ said Manager Fitzgerald, greatly flattered at the presence of his distinguished visitor. ‘You’re my guest tonight.’
‘Mr. Whitney’ protested, but Manager Fitzgerald was firm. He made it very clear that all of his celebrated guest’s millions wouldn’t change his mind. His visitor was very appreciative as he accepted the seats and spent half an hour in friendly conversation before going in to see the show. Among other things, he explained how he happened to be drinking.
It appeared that he was very nervous over the prospect of being summoned down to Washington to testify in the oil investigation, and he hinted, with several confidential winks, that he had made too many millions out of Teapot Dome to take a chance on being subpoenaed.
All this was very interesting to the theatrical man, but he could not help feeling that he was keeping his guest from the show, and so he unselfishly ended a most interesting talk about the Rockefellers and led him to his box. In the meantime the news that ‘Mr. Whitney’ was in the house had rippled back of the scenes, and every chorus girl in the show trotted out before the footlights with a warm hope in her heart and a languishing look in her eyes.
Here they were in a college town with nothing to look forward to but callow undergraduates entertaining on their allowances, and some good fairy had blown a real multi-millionaire race horse owner right into the stage box. It was almost too good to be true!
No one ever got more attention than ‘Mr. Whitney.’ The girls sang their songs to him, danced for his especial benefit and smiled and looked their prettiest during the entire show. But he remained in a state of bored melancholy. The more animated they were the more depressed he became, and it began to look as if the evening was a complete failure for ‘Mr. Whitney,’ Manager Fitzgerald, the girls and everybody concerned.
And just then the orchestra struck up a weird Oriental melody and Princess Doveer appeared on the stage. Her Highness, whose real name is Clara Crawford, specializes in the variety of dance that seems to go with a string or two of pearl beads, and it was noticeable that the melancholy ‘Mr. Whitney’ revived almost at once.
He sat up very straight and never took his eyes from the beguiling exercises that were being demonstrated by the slim Princess. When she responded to his enthusiastic applause by performing an encore five feet from where he sat his appreciation attracted the attention of the entire house. And the moment she had concluded her number he left the box and sought out Manager Fitzgerald.
‘I must meet the Princess,’ he said. ‘Jolly nice girl, isn’t she?’
Manager Fitzgerald was pleased at the millionaire’s appreciation and conducted him back stage and presented him to the dancer, to the great envy of all the other little creatures who had done their level best to please. And when the introduction was concluded and the curtain rang down on the last act, ‘Mr. Whitney’ met all the other principals in the show.
‘Mr. Whitney’ had kind words for all and suggested a little after-the-theatre supper for the company. He said that Manager Fitzgerald had been so kind and all the girls had been so charming that he would like to do a little something for them. There was no time for him to prepare anything very elaborate, with emeralds under the napkins and girls appearing from pies, he explained, but they would do the best they could under the circumstances. So the party proceeded to the nearest restaurant with the Princess on ‘Mr. Whitney’s’ arm.
The supper was quite informal, but ‘Mr. Whitney’ made up for the lack of rare delicacies by the abundance of his conversation. He said he often had a mind to quit the financial interests in which he was involved and devote himself to the stage, and before long he had organized several tentative companies to star each of the girls in the party.
As for the Princess, he wished that she could be sheltered from the rude contacts of the theatre and he asked her right out if she wouldn’t prefer a home to a career. Not love in a cottage either, but jewels and limousines galore and a triumphal trip through Europe whenever she had the notion.
And in order to keep the suggestion within proper bounds he confided to the little company that his wife was in Paris getting a divorce, and while he couldn’t say just what he intended to do when the divorce was granted, still – here rolled an ardent eye at the Princess.
The delightful little supper party was at length interrupted by the waiter, who regretted that the restaurant had remained open three hours after the usual closing time in deference to ‘Mr. Whitney,’ but that now they would have to go. And, naturally, he presented a check.
It was then that ‘Mr. Whitney’ made an astonishing discovery, and that was that he had no money. He laughed heartily, as if it had been the most comical thing in the world. So did the rest. Harry Payne Whitney without sufficient money to pay a dinner check! It was too funny for words!
‘Now I remember,’ he exclaimed. ‘I gave Brewster’s butler $400 and told him to get his face operated on so he could smile now and then. I certainly must have been under the weather. Well, who’s got a check book?’
But the guests would not hear of ‘Mr. Whitney’ going to all the trouble of writing a check, and so Jack Reid, the comedian of the show, paid the bill over the host’s protests. ‘Mr. Whitney’ calmed down somewhat when Reid promised to let him pay him the money the next day. The merry little party dispersed and ‘Mr. Whitney’ saw the Princess to her hotel. She promised to take breakfast with him (which would be in an hour or two, because it was then dawn), and sat up the rest of the night with the other girls, discussing her good fortune.
And ‘Mr. Whitney’ was just as generous as they had anticipated. Before long he appeared and informed the Princess they had a great deal of shopping to do. When the little dancer protested demurely at his extravagance he jokingly suggested that she could take him to breakfast if she felt that the obligation was too heavy. And there was much innocent merriment when the Princess paid the bill, especially when ‘Mr. Whitney’ laughingly insisted that she tip the waiter.
After breakfast they visited the Hamilton store in New Haven, when ‘Mr. Whitney’ introduced himself to the manager and again was the recipient of every kind attention. With his Princess he strolled down the aisles, followed by the manager and half a dozen clerks, buying almost everything in sight. And he only wanted the best. Each time the Princess saw a new gown that she liked, a messenger was sent across the street to the shop of Miss Emma Leary for a Paris hat to match it, and before long she had more clothes than a dozen debutantes.
It had been just like a Kansas cyclone, with the manager nervously snapping his fingers for more service and endeavoring to placate the regular customers who were entirely neglected in the rush. When it was over ‘Mr. Whitney’ drew his check for $3,600 on a New York bank and whisked his princess down the street to look at automobiles.
Here was a small difficulty, as the Princess, despite her title, is a modest young lady, and she didn’t want anything too showy. ‘Mr. Whitney’ tried his best to buy her a simple little $10,000 car, but she inclined toward a $3,600 coupe, especially as the salesman had been following them all morning and she felt that his patience should be rewarded. ‘Mr. Whitney’ was greatly disappointed at her choice.
‘For my sake,’ he urged her, ‘take this seven passenger car with the special body. You’ll find that the best is always the cheapest in the long run, and besides, these foreign cars look so much more distinguished.’
But the Princess had made up her mind and so they took a little spin in the country with the salesman driving the car, and they had a bite of lunch. Here ‘Mr. Whitney’ was reminded that he had not gone to the bank, and so the Princess again paid the check, and they returned to finish up their shopping. By this time the Princess had acquired everything in New Haven that was for sale, including jewelry, fur coats and lace stockings; ‘Mr. Whitney’ had written so many checks that he was tired. Moreover, it was time for the matinee performance at the theatre.
‘Mr. Whitney’ thought that the Princess ought to quit her job and the public at once, but the little dancer was guided by some inner instinct to tell him that this was quite out of the question. No matter how many automobiles and fur-coats and jewels he bought, she couldn’t think of giving up her career. But she promised to think it over during the performance, and as she disappeared through the stage door ‘Mr. Whitney’ went forth to make fresh purchases.
All during the show messengers kept arriving at the theatre with parcels of silk lingerie, inviting her to take her pick. Apparently ‘Mr. Whitney’ had left blank checks everywhere to cover the cost of items he was too modest to select himself. And before the show was over the dressing rooms back stage looked like a department store.
The Princess Doveer hurried through her act and rushed to join her Prince Charming in a nearby milliner’s shop, hoping to check his extravagance before he had spent all of the thirty millions he had casually mentioned the night before. But when she arrived she found two husky policemen there and ‘Mr. Whitney’ was demonstrating that he was quite as competent a wrestler as he was a spend-thrift.
‘And now,’ said one of the policemen as they finally got him on his back, ‘maybe you’ll tell us that you’re Reginald Vanderbilt.’
‘Mr. Whitney’ calmly admitted that he was able to impersonate Mr. Vanderbilt with quite as much success as he had enjoyed as Harry Payne Whitney, and he was dragged off to the police station, where he was discovered to be Harry B. Stedman, a former Harvard football star and the reputed black sheep of a prominent Hartford family.
He confessed that whenever he drank a little too much he was seized by the delusion that he was a Whitney or a Vanderbilt and acted as he imagined a multi-millionaire would. On one occasion he was so successful in his impersonation that he persuaded a policeman sent to arrest him to quit his job on the force and become his valet.
Of course, the disillusioned Princess had to hand back all those furs and gowns and stockings and jewels and even the automobile and run back to her job in the show, just as Cinderella had to run from the ballroom when the clock struck twelve and her golden carriage turned into a pumpkin. It was all like a horrid dream. Sorrow and gloom overwhelmed the company and the merry laughter of Mr. Reid, the comedian, is strained and hollow as he thinks of the fat restaurant check he paid for that gay after-the-theatre supper party.”
-article and images courtesy of the San Francisco Examiner, Sunday, May 18, 1924