A New Chapter In Umberto Tosi’s “Our Own Kind”
By Umberto Tosi
(Umberto Tosi, author of Ophelia Rising, was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times from 1959-1971.)
CHAPTER 14: CRY ‘THE COMPASSIONATE COUNTRY’
Benny drifts through the restless, election night crowd packing the Embassy Ballroom at the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire., hungry for a big win. Everyone is jazzed. He should be swept up in it, but his mind is on Makeda. Waves of hoopla roll outward from strategically placed TV monitors where spectators bunch up, obliviousness to the drab-carpet, commercial ordinariness of their surroundings. Not much glamorous about this spot now but the famous name. The cheering grows more ebullient with each morsel of good news as precincts report.
Drinks overflow; there is too much smoking. It’s been only a hard-to-believe two months since Martin Luther King was gunned down in Memphis – with his killer or killers still unnamed – and it has seemed an eternity of despair for most in this crowd. The days of dysfunction stretch back way longer, of course, with the Vietnam War growing ever bloodier while the bright triumphs of the civil rights movement and the War on Poverty gave way to the recalcitrant realities of inequality, racism and urban decay. Now some tangible measure of hope for a real shift had seemed about to arrive out of the depths. The good news coming from the TV sets seemed almost alien.
People imbibe and chatter among themselves– buoyed by Kennedy’s mounting California primary election lead over Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy – first Democrat to challenge LBJ, but now relegated to playing John the Baptist to RFK. Yes! It was happening! These people, thought Benny, still believe that one election could change everything, or wanted to. He didn’t feel it.
The crowd of press, campaign workers and supporters, laced with celebrities and wannabes turn woozy with the sweet scent of victory as midnight approaches. Long-standing liberal misgivings about the Kennedy clan seem set aside for the moment. Bobby has been electrifying campaigning all over the Golden State, especially here in Los Angeles. He seemed out to prove that he has the courage to do what has to be done – to end the bloody war, declare victory and get the hell out — pull the country together and finish his slain brother’s work – the New Frontier, chapter two, at last, or something like that.
Ben scans the crowd for Makeda, trying to be discreet. He had planned to go home after work and watch the results on television, but here he was, uninvited. I’m just watching that nothing happens to her, he rationalizes. He feels silly about his paranoia now has arrived, amid all these giddy supporters, on the verge, they know, of something too powerful to be stopped now. The big moment is coming when they – “we the people,” they dream, will take charge of things.
Benny knows the Ambassador Hotel. He’s been there a lot, covering, albeit of the Hollywood kind, usually in a supporting role back when he was a junior writer for the Sunday sections. For all its cache, the Embassy Ballroom looks like a lot of other hotel spaces, although presidents, financiers and stars that have stayed at the hotel since the 1920s. More stardust could be found down the potted palmed hallways in the fading but still sumptuous faux-Babylonian splendor of the Ambassador’s “world famous” Coconut Grove nightclub, home of the Academy Awards during the 1930s. The big bands of the 1940s played there, where Makeda’s mother had once sung, as did Lena Horne later, breaking the color barrier.
Benny is just starting to get with the crowd’s upbeat mood when he hears Preacher Man’s Delphic chant floating faintly through the chatter. Oh, God. He makes out the manic words that Preacher used in the alley off 2nd Street by the Grand Central Market only a few days earlier.. “Hell! You’re gonna go to h-e-l-l. Hell! Coconuts Kennedy Coconuts going to h-e-l-l! Groves almighty! Coco nuts from hell! Hell, gonna to to hell! … !
Benny wonders if he’s imagining it all, in fantasy hotel where Marilyn Monroe sipped champagne with Cole Porter – both of them now gone, she in ’62, he in ’64, but of natural causes – she, forever collecting famous and brilliant men – gay or straight. Just ask the Kennedy brothers. First hubby, Jim Dougherty romanced young Norma Jean at the Coconut Grove in 1946, during a marriage that apparently had its moments despite having been arranged to keep her out of foster care. She was 20 then. She’d be 42 now had she lived, Benny mused. Jim Dougherty likely whetted her youthful craving for stardom still more that night. Or maybe it was she who had dragged him there. As Marilyn she reappeared among the superstars at the Grove during the years that followed, all aglitter, flashbulbs popping. She had dinner with second husband Joe DiMaggio there once – a little awkward, they say – but not with Arthur Miller.
All the photos in this collage are from pix taken of Marilyn Monroe at the Ambassador Coconut Grove over 20 years time, including with her first husband, James Dougherty (as Norma Jean, lower right), with Cole Porter,( bottom left),with Joe DiMaggio, (bottom), and with Elsa Maxwell (far right bottom), and Donald O’Connor, (bottom left corner.)
Dougherty had joined the LAPD after he and Norma Jean divorced. He was a crack shot who gave rookies instructions at the range. Far as Benny knew, Dougherty still was on the force, out in West Hollywood. Benny had interviewed him briefly after L.A. cops rained hell on an unexpectedly huge, antiwar demonstration in front of the Century City Plaza Hotel in June of ’67, where LBJ had been speaking. Sgt. Imhoff had introduced them.
Benny wrote a sidebar about Jim that never made it into the paper. Such a regular, quiet guy, reluctant to say anything about Norma Jean. Benny regretted not pressing him – coming out with a sappy piece, he thought, cursing himself for lacking the paparazzi balls every reporter needs. He hadn’t grasped that they only tell you what serves them anyway. Benny wondered if Dougherty wasn’t in the Embassy Ballroom now, in mufti, as he was known to ghost certain high profile events.
Searching for the source of the chants, Benny spots the tall, gaunt man moving through the merrymakers. It’s Preacher Man, but tidied up. The lunatic’s unruly beard has been trimmed and his matted, shoulder-length hair washed, tamed and coiffed. No brassiere on his head. Nevertheless, Benny recognizes him. Preacher Man! What the hell?Is he stalking his former wife, Makeda? For that matter, thought Benny: Am I stalking her?
Shouts erupt from the knots of people by the TV monitors.
Ben asks a woman next to him. “Did Bobby cinch it?”
She says nothing. Next to her, a ruddy man in a blue blazer, red tie and white, RFK-ALL-THE-WAY boater, cheers and bounces a Kennedy sign up and down. He shouts to Benny: “Not yet. But Don Drysdale has just pitched his sixth straight shutout for the Dodgers – a world record, the big lug. What a night!”
Benny makes a V-sign – like for peace as well as the Dodger pitcher. He weaves through the crowd to catch up with Preacher Man. He tugs his sleeve. “Hey, Zeke, man. It’s me”
Preacher Man stares at him.
Ben feels stupid. It’s hard to sound casual when your throat feels constricted and you have to practically shout to be heard. “What’s up? What are you doing here?”
Preacher give Benny the Apocalypse eye. “God has sent me. I am avenging angel!”
Somehow Preacher Man sounds even scarier in trendy sportswear than he did in his usual camo jumpsuit with all the necklaces and his head-bra. He fits right in among the celebrants tonight, in spiffy tan slacks and a fine, herringbone, light green sports jacket. Ben notices a bulge under the jacket.
Benny improvises lamely. “Hey, Zeke. I got a surprise for you outside. Come see.” He knows it’s childish, but the best he can improvise. He tries for Preacher’s arm, but the taller man pulls away and slips into the crowd with surprising nimbleness.
Another roar goes up – this time deafening. “NBC just gave it to Kennedy,” somebody yells. The crowd goes home-run wild! People stomp, clap, wave banners, mill wildly, hug each other, laugh, cry and chant for Bobby. Even the press seems swept away.
The room is filled now with new people arriving. Everybody’s drunk with happiness. After the first wave, they settle into rhythmic chanting for their hero.
After what seems a long time, Bobby – the man of the hour, the man they’ve all been awaiting, he who they suddenly, fervently believe will end this nightmare that has become America – moves to the lectern with his entourage. Bobby looks small and wrung out – sans the Kennedy joie d’vivre. He wears a rumpled sports jacket and plain white shirt – collar unbuttoned, with dark, narrow, nondescript tie hanging loose.
Benny spots Makeda, one of the few black faces up on the platform, a few rows from Bobby on the left, beaming on her big assignment. She is nearly obscured by the bulk of Roosevelt Grier, her assigned subject – perfect – a few steps from a tired looking and pregnant Ethel Kennedy. The crowd moves forward, forming a knot that prevents Benny from getting close enough to check with Makeda.
She might not be happy to see him here, anyway, after their tiff. Their eyes meet momentarily. She squints, maybe miffed, or maybe from the camera lights. He grins, and gives a thumbs up, not sure she really sees him. He mouths, “I love you,” and “I’m sorry,” and feels hopelessly corny. What he wants even more is to tell her that her to watch for Preacher Man, her deranged ex here and roaming the ballroom, hell on his mind, as always.
Benny can’t see Preacher Man anywhere now. “Shit,” he mutters, up on tip-toe.
Someone grabs Benny’s elbow. Imhoff! “Back off, Clark Kent.” he whispers into Benny’s ear. “I got this.” Then he laughs.
Imhoff rasps: “Forget the Preacher. I took him out.”
Imhoff gestures towards the kitchen doors at the back of the ballroom, behind the platform where Kennedy stands. “There’s the guy you want to keep eyes on!” Ben sees a Latin-looking, round-faced man wearing a beige linen jacket, black slacks and a Hawaiian shirt with red and yellow parrots. The man is holding a brown paper sack in one hand, like a school lunch, except the bag hangs at an odd angle.
Bobby Kennedy starts to talk, but Benny stays focused on Imhoff. “What?” Benny repeats, feeling foolish.
“Where’s your notepad, big-time reporter?” Imhoff nudges him. “Here comes your scoop!”
“I think this event being amply covered, sergeant.” Benny nods dryly towards Bobby, surrounded by cameras and press.
The crowd keeps cheering as Kennedy speaks, feeding his victory-starved followers the uplifting words they’ve been waiting to devour. Benny strains to hear Imhoff and catches only fragments of what the detective is tells him next. “That’s Morales … was CIA Havana station chief… Bay of Pigs. … Hated Jack…. Hates Bobby.” Imhoff stops. He grips Benny’s arm hard “Oh fuck, he’s with another one of them.”
Benny tries to step forward. “What’s going on?”
Imhoff pushes him aside, into the guy with the Kennedy boater next to them. “Stay out of this, kid.” Imhoff sets off toward Morales, parting clusters of people like an ice breaker. Ben tries to follow, but the crowd gets tighter, blocking his progress and view.
Robert F. Kennedy has the crowd with him now, but his voice is soft. Bobby sounds tentative, unlike the victorious candidate that he now is, unlike the odds-on favorite to be the next President of the United States. “There is much yet to be done.” The crowd cheers wildly nonetheless.
“Ken-ne-dy, Ken-ne-dy, Ken-ed-dy!” The chant rises. Bobby pauses, nods shyly, then says, “I’d like to congratulate…” He pauses, grins “… Don Drysdale.” The fans laugh, tensions relieved. “I understand that he did it tonight, broke all records …” Cheers and applause.
It’s hard for Benny to hear Kennedy through the crowd’s ambient murmur. “Moving on… tonight… historic…”
Benny squeezes closer to the podium to catch more, still trying to locate Imhoff again, or Preacher. Neither they, nor the mysterious Morales are to be seen. Maybe he can find Roy, whom he knows is somewhere around, probably off to the side, up there with the rest of the print media types.
The room goes quieter now as Kennedy gets down to explicitly declaring his victory – giving he crowd what it wanted to hear. But he doesn’t dwell on it. He changes from cheerful to grave. “One thing is clear in this year of 1968 as I traveled across this country, I believe that the American people want no more Vietnam…”
Roars! Applause and sign-waving! Flash bulbs go off.
Bobby warms up, flashing the old Kennedy charm, rambling a bit with spontaneous sincerity. “What is quite clear is that we can work together, in the last analysis, and that what has been going on within the United States in the last three years – the divisions, the violence, the disenchantment with our society – the divisions, whether it’s between blacks and whites, between the poor and the more affluent, or between age groups or the war in Vietnam…”
Kennedy’s voice rises. “It is clear that we can start to work together. We are a great country and a selfless country and we are a compassionate country!”
People lean towards him, taking in every word now.
“A compassionate country?” Benny keeps repeating this to himself, his eyes tear up with those of everyone else, in spite of himself.
Bobby gives his fans his best, toothy Irish grin, and winds down down his modest victory speech with a little joke, that in retrospect would seem chillingly prophetic. “Mayor Yorty has just sent me a message that we’ve been here too long already….”
The crowd laughs, then sighs, wanting more, but sensing the fatigue of their hero.
“My thanks to all of you..” Cheering arises again, and a tired Bobby calls up his energy to wrap things up, sounding labored. “… and now it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win this!”
Robert F. Kennedy gives everyone a shy thumbs up, with his trademark boyish grin. He moves forward a little. Benny guesses that he will cross the ballroom and go down the hallway to another ballroom full of supporters who await him. But someone in Bobby’s tight circle says something to the candidate, and he turns back towards the kitchen doors, his entourage following.
The crowd, suddenly deflated after this long evening, starts to thin rapidly as the Kennedy party leaves.
Benny sighs with enormous relief. Nothing terrible happened. Preacher Man has gone. No Imhoff. The strange, Havana agent has vanished. Kennedy is safely away, most likely short-cutting through the hotel kitchen to meet with the press corps briefly in the Ambassador restaurant just beyond it. Makeda looks just fine, whether she saw him or not – more solid now, no doubt, in pooh-poohing his Preacher Man paranoia. Benny can hear her saying I-told-you-so. That is, if she’s still even talking to him.
Benny thinks of heading for the press briefing himself, but it will be packed, and he doesn’t have a pass to enter, despite being with the paper. Nevertheless, he edges towards the kitchen doors hoping to say good night to Makeda.
He crosses the room and steps through the kitchen doors, follows the passageway to the right and quickly joins tail end of the entourage.
He glimpses Makeda ahead in the crush. He’s squeezed and swept along a corridor towards the bright lights of the kitchen … Everyone talks at once, energized. Like a conga line on its way to a party, they all snake through a pantry. Ahead are sinks, chopping tables and stoves. White-aprons and caps line their way… Kennedy, up ahead, ever the tireless campaigner, holds up the line, stopping to shake hands with the help.
Pop, pop, pop! Firecrackers? Too sharp, too loud. Benny’s ears ring. Reality blurs and slow down. Someone screams. “Shots fired,” someone else yells. More screams. Shouting from everywhere. More shots! More screams. People jam up against Benny trying to get back through the passageway.
A man voice: “Close the doors! Close the doors!”
Another: “He’s been shot!”
Still another voice, loud and choked. “Oh, my God! No! No! No!”
A woman moans just ahead of Benny, and tears at her fashionably coiffed blond hair. She spins around and beats on his chest with her fists. Benny trips and falls to his hands and knees. He tries to crawl forward through the pandemonium. He thinks he catches sight of Grier and Rafer Johnson tackling a smallish, dark-haired man in a white kitchen-help jacket. Maybe he saw this happen in a TV clip later. He can’t remember. His memories will conflate with the public images and coverage in a traumatized shared delirium.
This isn’t happening. He tries to stand up, probably a bad idea, then trips again and falls over the form of a woman…
Makeda! He sits up, gasps, and takes her shoulders. She’s bleeding from somewhere. Her eyes glaze, blinking. Her removes his jacket, rolls it into a pillow to prop her head. She sees Benny and tries to smile. Her lips move. He tries to hear what she’s telling him… Something about Keesha.
More shouts. “Call an ambulance! Get the police.”
Yeah, like where the fuck is the LAPD? Where’s the ambulance?
“You got a bloody nose. Might be broken.” A voice from just above calls down to Benny.
“I’m okay.” Benny wipes his face and sees the blood on his sleeve. Not a lot. He starts to regain strength, though he feels his kneecaps shaking and cold sweat running down his back.
Somebody keeps repeating. “Senator Kennedy’s been shot!” The sobs, groans, curses, screams, go on. “Head wound. Blood everywhere,” a woman says, staggering back, apparently from where the senator lay on the grimy floor, the life oozing out of him as photographers rush past them now to catch the scene of this atrocity.
Benny doesn’t remember much in the confusion that follows. Medics arrive. They take Kennedy and others out to ambulances, including Makeda. They won’t let Benny ride with her. No room in the ambulance. They tell him to get checked later. He stands up, refuses help himself, and walks away while the medics busy themselves with others. Others are dead and wounded.
Nobody can agree on the number of rounds fired, or from whence. No Imhoff. No Preacher Man to be seen, no Morales. Roy is out there somewhere, unscathed. After a while, Benny finally sees uniformed police. Then feds, press, everyone asking questions.
An agent talks to him, but only briefly. Benny makes his way home. It’s past four in the morning. He crashes on his couch, waking with a start every few minutes, sweating. First light comes quickly, another day. Sitting up, he takes in the comforting glow of dawn filtering through his French door curtains from the patio – reassurance that the world keeps turning. No sense trying to sleep now.
Suddenly he realizes what Makeda had been trying to tell him. Keesha! He phones Zoya, who has been babysitting Makeda’s little girl. Zoya already knows about what happened. Keesha is blissfully asleep and never saw the terrible happenings on TV. Benny fills her in about Makeda, mostly relating what Zoya had already found out. “The medic said she didn’t look badly hurt, but they will have to watch her.” They make plans for little Keesha’s care over the next few days.
“We pray to God, for Keesha’s mother,” says Zoya reverently in her Russian accent. “And for the poor family of that good man, killed like that, in front of his wife.”
“Yes, and in front of us all, with God and Mayor Yorty looking the other way.”