As I sit alone in this small church staring at his casket (a casket, by the way, that costs more than the building it sits in is worth), I can’t help but smile to myself. This is where it started all those many, many years ago. Mike could have had one of those large, ostentatious Hollywood funerals, but he asked me, so to speak, to ship him here on the q.t. He wanted only one mourner, me.
I first met Mike Landrieu when I was thirteen, the year was 1935. I had run away from home, such as it was. The old man was an abusive drunk and my mother had given up hope years earlier. I hitched myself a ride with a salesman heading west and we got as far as this town when his Ford Model A blew a tire. Not wanting to wait around while he patched the tube, I grabbed my grip and bid him good-bye. As I look back on it now, that blown tire was fate knocking at my door.
While walking through town on my way to the highway, my eye caught sight of a small billboard in front of a burlesque house. It wasn’t the listing of the acts that drew my attention; it was the picture of the star, Rosita Royce. And as many a thirteen-year-old boy can attest to, that is all it took to stop me in my tracks. Having nowhere I had to be and no one waiting for me when I got there, I took myself around to the back to ask for a job.
I walked through the door, which was propped open, and was immediately accosted by Pop. There was a “Pop” guarding the stage entrance in every house. From the grandest in New York City to the third raters in little towns like the one I was currently in. The man who halted my ingress inquired as to what I wanted and who I wanted to see. When I informed him I was looking for a job, he laughed and said, “Ain’t you heard, boy? There’s a depression going on. There ain’t no jobs nowhere, and if there was a job available, it would have been snatched up long before you showed.”
When he had finished speaking, he slit his eyes, and looking at me sideways said, “How old are you?” I was big for my age, so I lied and told him I was sixteen. I don’t think I fooled him much.
Just then a man walked up and asked, “What’s this, Pop?”
“This here boy is lookin’ for work, but I told him we don’t have none.”
Turning his full attention in my direction, the man asked me my name. When I told him, he stuck out his hand and said, “I’m Mike Landrieu, I run this house.” After we shook hands, I took stock of the man. To me he was ancient; he must have been all of twenty-five. He told Pop that he was going out for a “bottle and bird,” which I later learned was the term show people used for a meal.
“Why not come along?” he asked. “I’ll treat you to some donuts and milk and maybe we can find a job for you.” The short of it is, Mike hired me as his assistant and gave me a room at the back of the theater in which to live.
I liked working for Mike. It was quite an education. He kept me busy, and he taught me the business. It was just a third-rate burlesque house, but Mike ran it first-rate. Even though he was young, he was known as Uncle Mike to all the acts that came through. About a year later, Mike upped and said we were going to Hollywood. He had sold the place.
We hit Hollywood on a dusty, wind-blown day. Back then there were still some orange groves around town and the wind was kicking up an awful fuss. Mike knew so many people in the business that it wasn’t long before he was representing some of them to the studios. One thing led to another and before we knew it, Mike was a big time Hollywood agent.
In ’55, I left Mike—with his blessing—and started my own agency. Being as busy as I was, I didn’t see Mike as often as I would have liked. I think it might have been six months since I last spoke with him when I got the call. It was near 2:00 a.m. I was in bed with a girl from Omaha who thought she was going to be the next Bette Davis.
I picked up the phone and Mike said, “Howdy, partner, I need you.” There was a tremor in his voice that brought me full awake. “Can you come over here right now?” he asked.
I was out the door before the would-be starlet could object.
I pulled into Mike’s driveway and noticed a strange car parked there. I didn’t knock, but went right in and found Mike covered in blood.
“What the hell happened, Mike?”
“I don’t know. She attacked me with a knife, she just went crazy!”
He pointed towards the bedroom, and I walked that way. I wish I hadn’t. Sprawled across the bed lay a woman on white sheets soaked in crimson blood, which glistened in the dim light. Her eyes were opened; she was looking right at me, but she did not see me. She was dead.
I turned away in disgust. Mike had followed me into the room and was standing behind me. He was crying.
“Mike, tell me what happened here.”
“I just don’t know. We were going . . . going to . . . you know. She was telling me about how she had a small speaking part in a Warner’s film as she was taking off her clothes. Then she suddenly ran from the room and came back holding that kitchen knife,” he said as he pointed toward a knife on the floor.
“I just don’t know,” he mumbled again.
I turned Mike around, walked him to the living room and sat him down on the couch. I got a bottle of Scotch and poured us both a stiff one. “Okay, Mike . . . no bullshit, tell me!”
He downed his drink in one gulp and said, “She was a honey I picked up down on Wilshire. You know, that little hole-in-the-wall off Pico. I didn’t know her; she said she wanted to go home with me and I thought that would be a good idea. She followed me here in her car. Everything was going good. I made drinks and we talked for a while. Then she made bedroom eyes at me, stood up, took my hand, and led me into the bedroom. The next thing I knew, she was trying to stab me with that damn knife.”
He stood and poured himself another drink. Then he continued, “We fought for the knife and I somehow got it away from her, but . . . when I wrenched it from her hand, it slipped into her throat. It was an accident! I tried to stop the flow of blood, but I just couldn’t. She was on the bed just like she is now. Slowly she smiled at me as her life seeped out of her.”
Mike started to cry again.
“What do you want me to do, Mike?”
He did not answer, I don’t think he heard me.
I placed my hand on his shoulder. He had been like a father to me. He was the only person that had ever treated me right. I knew what I had to do.
I went into the bedroom and rolled the woman up in the sheets. The blood had soaked through to the mattress, but that was of no concern at the moment. I carried her outside and placed her in her car. Then I went back into the house and retrieved her purse. Her car keys were in it.
Mike was in a trance and had no idea what I was doing. I told him to have another drink and not do anything until I got back. He nodded numbly, and I left Mike Landrieu for the last time.
I drove the woman’s car out to Malibu and left it in a parking lot of a restaurant on the beach. I had trouble finding a cab, so it was a while before I made it back to Mike’s.
I went in to find my old friend sitting in his favorite chair. He was dead; he had shot himself. There was a note in his hand. He wrote that he could not live with what he had done. He asked that he be buried in the town where we first met. And he thanked me for being his friend. His friend? The sonavabitch saved me when I was just a snot-nosed kid.
I took the note and left. Let the cops figure it out.
I sit here alone in this Podunk town with only my memories . . . and my friend, Mike Landrieu.