"Do I look heavyish to you?" asked Cary Grant as the Hudson River valley rushed past the train's window. "I feel heavyish." A Gibson with three pearl onions sat untouched at his manicured fingertips. "I should leave myself a note in the morning: 'Think thin.'"
As a favor to Monty at All Good Things, I had agreed to interview Cary Grant on the Twentieth Century Limited which makes trips between the left and right hemispheres of my brain on a daily basis. History's greatest movie star and I had been sitting in the dining car unmolested by a waiter for twenty minutes and we were both hungry, the difference being that when Cary Grant's stomach growls, it sounds like a murmuring brook on a summer day, while mine sounds like the score of Forbidden Planet.
"Everyone tells me I've had such an interesting life," he said, "but sometimes I think it's been nothing but stomach disturbances and self-concern."
The man born as Archie Leach had seemed oddly unsure of himself ever since we'd met up in New York's Grand Central Terminal shortly before our train's departure. Cary Grant had a cold and for the sixth time in as many minutes, he blew his nose into a monogrammed handkerchief—mine, unfortunately. Grant had left his in a suitcase in his stateroom and hadn't wanted to make the long trek back to get it.
"Pardon me," he said, blowing his nose again, and he snapped at a waiter, "Either hurry up, or get me a snorkel!"
I recognized several faces at the surrounding tables—John Barrymore and Carole Lombard; Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave; and all four of the Three Stooges. Janet Leigh was lighting cigarettes for a heavily-sweating Frank Sinatra, and at a corner table Nick and Nora Charles were working on the six martinis they had lined up between them. On Nora's lap was an over-sized purse with a suspiciously wagging tail (no baggage car for Asta, no sir).
Everyone was polite about pretending not to pay any attention to us, but I could see their eyes shift away whenever I looked up.
"I'm not shy," Grant said, letting their glances roll off his shoulders. "I've been looked at before. Everybody would like to be Cary Grant," he asserted, but then his voice softened and he added with a wry smile, "even I would like to be Cary Grant."
At last a white-coated porter came to the table for our order.
"I recommend the brook trout," Grant said, frowning at the menu card. "It's a bit trouty, but quite good." Then he looked up and shrugged. "Actually, I have no idea whether it's good or not. It's just something Eva Marie Saint said to me once. It didn't make a lick of sense to me, then or now. But she was so beautiful, she could have told me monks taste like monkeys and I would have nodded and said, 'Yes, dear.'" He eyed the Gibson, but still didn't drink. "You know she never makes love on an empty stomach? Which tends to explain why her husband is so fat. No wonder they've been married sixty years. Judas Priest!"
That got us on the subject of leading ladies and at last Grant reached for the untouched drink. "Irene Dunne was the sweetest smelling actress I ever worked with," he said, "with lips that tasted of spiced cider and gingerbread—like kissing Christmas morning right on the teeth. Katharine Hepburn, on the other hand, smelled like old money—sort of dank and musty, but in a way a man could get used to, especially if he grew up as poor as I did." He swallowed the Gibson in one gulp and contemplated the onions at the bottom of the empty glass. "Deborah Kerr never let me get close enough to sniff her, but I imagine she smelled pretty good."
After the waiter brought out our dinners—the trout was indeed "trouty"—Grant continued cataloging the scents of various actresses. Jean Arthur smelled of "elderberries," he said, Myrna Loy of "patchouli," Ann Sheridan of "brown soap and beer."
"Ingrid Bergman had no particular scent," he said, "but she had very sensitive hands and an exceedingly light touch," then added, "She strangled a German general once—just for kicks!"
Grace Kelly's name came up ("a curious combination of Creed Fleurissimo and Philly cheesesteak"), and I mentioned that my late father-in-law had met her while working as a stringer for the now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin—he took photographs for the paper because he ran in the same circles with the society editor, owned his own tuxedo and could handle a camera.
Grant nodded and smiled wistfully. "Gracie and I would picnic in the hills around Monaco while we were filming To Catch A Thief," he told me. "Every day at lunch, she would say, 'Leg or a breast, leg or a breast?' and I would let her choose, but still, it bothered me. Finally I said, 'Why all the protein, Graciebird? Why not a vegetable or a nice spring salad once in a while?' That's when she explained she wasn't talking about food." He looked out the window and shook his head. "The years I wasted eating chicken."
Grant stated flatly he was a man who loved women, no matter what the tabloids had reported. "In the spring," he said, "a young man's fancy lightly turns to what he's been thinking about all winter." He wagged a finger at me. "I tell you, women are not the sensitive sex. That's one of the grand delusions of literature. Men are the true romanticists."
He professed to have loved all his wives dearly, even though he divorced four of them. "I still claim I was tight the night I proposed," he said, blowing his nose again. "If they had been gentlemen, they would have forgotten all about it."
Perhaps worried about to whom he might propose next, Grant stayed resolutely sober, nursing a second Gibson through the long summer evening. As the shadows lengthened in the dining car, the other passengers drifted out, singly or in pairs, and but for Nick Charles who was demonstrating the proper rhythm for shaking a cocktail to a yawning porter, we were alone. Grant lighted upon a number of subjects—travel ("You can always drive over to Tulsa for the weekend"), time management ("When a man is wrestling a leopard in the middle of a pond, he's in no position to run"), and even his male co-star in His Girl Friday ("He looked like that fellow in the movies, you know, Ralph Bellamy")—but eventually the conversation wound down and I knew the interview was over. He blew his nose one last time and stood up.
"I'm going to bed soon," he said, as he returned my now irretrievably soiled handkerchief, "and I plan to lock my door. There are mad killers and dangerous assassins on the loose, and I've got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives and several bartenders that depend upon me. I don't intend to disappoint them all by getting myself slightly killed." Then he cocked his head and added, "Say, you wouldn't happen to have an extra pair of pajamas, would you? How about olive oil? I want to be packed in olive oil if I'm to be a sardine."
I said, no, I had neither pajamas nor olive oil, and wondered to myself what the bartender had put in those drinks.
Grant made his way forward to his stateroom and I made my way to the observation car at the rear of the train where I put myself to sleep with a bottle of cheap blended whiskey, which is all a struggling movie blogger can afford, even in his own head. I spotted no famous passengers back there, just a few who hadn't bothered to shower before getting on the train in New York.
I opened a book and daydreamed about Irene Dunne and kisses that tasted like Christmas morning.
We didn't pull into Chicago's LaSalle Street Station until after nine. As I stepped off the train, I bumped into Grant on the platform. I had expected him to be long gone, whisked away in a limo perhaps, and was surprised to see him carrying luggage while dressed in a redcap's uniform.
"You look terrible," he said sympathetically. "Me, I slept like a baby." There was none of yesterday's hesitation in his voice, and his eyes sparkled with the familiar, easy mischief of the dozen best movies of Hollywood's Golden Age. "I see you've noticed the uniform," he said, grinning. "What can I tell you—whenever I come to Chicago on the Twentieth Century Limited, I bribe a redcap to strip down to his boxer shorts while I fondle strangers' luggage. Later I'll change clothes in Marshall Field's window then take a Greyhound bus to Highway 41 where I'll blow up a tanker truck with a cropduster."
My face must have revealed more than I intended because he said, "My formula for living is quite simple. I get up in the morning and I go to bed at night. In between, I occupy myself as best I can." Then his eyes lit up and he paused to sniff the air. "Rosewater and sandalwood," he said. "Smells like Joan Fontaine!" And with a cheery wave, he was suddenly off, chasing a large woman with a carry-on bag. "Come here, you!"
As he disappeared into the crowd, I reflected that Cary Grant was a very sick man, indeed. But at least he was over his cold.