Paul Johnson

And Another Thing

The Public Enemy, the moll and the squashed grapefruit.

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Do the sources disagree? Of course. And so they should. One of the mysterious aspects of human perception is the way in which eye-witnesses disagree about what they have seen. Not just many years later, when memory has had ample time to weave its fantasies, but soon, even immediately, after the event. An interesting case concerns Jimmy Cagney’s masterpiece, The Public Enemy. This brilliant and horrifying movie, with a spectacularly gruesome ending, is now chiefly remembered for one bizarre sequence, in which Cagney, playing the top gangster, is having his room-service breakfast in a slap-up hotel, and is annoyed by his tiresome moll. Suddenly he says ‘Aw, shuttup!’, snatches up a half-grapefruit, and screws it into her face.

I remember it vividly. I saw the movie in the mid-1930s, when I was only six, and how I was allowed to go I can’t imagine. Grapefruit were new in England then. I had just made my First Communion, and at the posh convent breakfast afterwards I was given a grapefruit, the first I had ever had. Thus Cagney’s use of the thing struck me as sacrilegious as well as everything else. It caused outrage at the time. The actress, Mae Clarke, set up a squawk, and claimed she had been abused. Actually, said Cagney, she had been spared a worse fate. The shot was based on a real incident, in which a Chicago mobster called Hymie Weiss squashed an omelette in the girl’s face. He refused to do this, saying it was too messy and degrading, so the grapefruit was substituted. Originally he threw the grapefruit. Then William A. Wellman thought the squashing would be better. He asked Mae if she minded. She said she would allow it to be done once, but no retakes. Another version has it that on the day Mae arrived with a terrible cold and her nose was sore. She begged Cagney to fake the grapefruit rubbing. He agreed, but when he told Wellman, the director exploded: ‘Hell! This is the best thing in the movie! It will make you world-famous. You’re going to do it all out, Cagney!’ So the actor agreed. Mae was not told, and truly outraged to have the grapefruit well and truly screwed in her face. After the shot, which fortunately was a success and needed no retake — it is a perfect piece of cinematography — Mae jumped to her feet, howled at Cagney that she had been betrayed, and said: ‘You are an Irish son-of-a-bitch, take that!’ She then gave him a terrific upper-cut with a powerfully clenched fist. By a mischance the cameras had not gone on running, so this is one immortal episode in Hollywood history which is not recorded. According to one account she also called Wellman a bastard, and screamed at the writer of the novel on which the movie was based, Beer and Blood, by John Bright, who also did the screenplay.

Cagney was quite right to do the squashing, for the movie was essentially realistic, based on things which had happened. Cagney said he modelled his acting on a furtive friend of his father’s called Jack ‘Dirty Neck’ Lafferty, whom he remembered from childhood. This unfortunate man had ‘gone to the chair’. Again, according to Cagney, special effects was a primitive science at the time the movie was shot, and they used real bullets, shot by a man who had been a machine-gunner in the first world war and who sat blazing away on a platform over the set while the cameras were turning. If you want an account of how this remarkable picture was made, I recommend the biography of Cagney written by John McCabe and published by Aurum Press in 1998.

Grapefruit, being novel, often intruded into movies in those days. There is a splendid scene early in The Big Sleep, in which Humphrey Bogart, playing a nervous punter, goes into a bookshop which is a front for a pornography business, and eventually plucks up courage to ask ‘Do you sell — books?’ The fierce ash-blonde in charge, who later gets a raw deal, gestures derisorily at the book-laden table with her arm, and says, ‘Whaddya think these are — grapefruit?’

History is punctuated by curious conflicts of evidence on points where certitude ought to have been easy, notably the death of kings. What were George V’s last words? One version has it that the king was assured he would soon be feeling better, and would be able to ‘recuperate in Bognor’, to which he replied crossly: ‘Bugger Bognor.’ Other tales have him asking a question, the stiff-upper-lip version being ‘How goes the Empire?’, the more demotic, ‘What’s on at the Empire?’ There is a third: ‘Don’t shoot the umpire.’ Harold Nicolson, not one who omits an anecdote if one is plausibly available, does not give a Famous Last Words quote in his official life of George V. Instead he tells a dull story about the monarch’s last privy council, held in the dying man’s bedroom, and the difficulty he had signing the document constituting a council of state. He said: ‘Gentlemen, I am sorry for keeping you waiting like this — I am unable to concentrate.’ Were these really the last words? If so, much inferior to Charles II’s: ‘My Lords, I am sorry to be such an unconscionable time a-dying.’ But then, these were probably invented (by Macaulay). So were many other death-bed sayings. A typical example is the end of Robert E. Lee, the great general of the Southern Confederacy. The mythmakers of the South will have it that his final words recalled the Battle of Gettysburg: ‘Tell Hill he must come up,’ or alternatively ‘Strike the tent.’ In fact, the evidence is overwhelming that Lee said nothing. And, being by nature a taciturn man, who used as few words as possible, this was appropriate. Most dying people say nothing. What is there to say? It is the living who want a parting remark, an exit line.

Wittgenstein had a long career of provoking conflicts of evidence and imaginative memories. Hardly any story about him is entirely true or not subject to contradiction. He tended to tell people, especially academics, to give up their professions. He certainly said: ‘Russell, give up philosophy.’ But then he may have said it to Moore too. But did he say to Keynes, ‘Keynes, give up economics’? And to Virginia Woolf, ‘Woolf, give up writing novels’? His relationship with F.R. Leavis was described in detail by Leavis himself. But he does not say whether Wittgenstein told him: ‘Leavis, give up literary criticism!’ I suspect he did, indeed I am morally certain he did. It is true that Bertrand Russell once said to him, ‘Well, at least we can agree, Wittgenstein, that there is no rhinoceros in this empty lecture-room’ — whereupon Wittgenstein began to peer under the desks, and Russell lost his temper. But Russell may have said ‘hippopotamus’.

Wittgenstein inspired a famous row on 25 October 1946 in King’s College, Cambridge, and a subsequent conflict of evidence analysed in a little book, Wittgenstein’s Poker. This concerns the fire-urn which he may or may not have waved in Karl Popper’s face. The following year, in May 1947, he was at my college in Oxford, and had another row with an elderly philosopher, Professor Joseph Pritchard, who died a week later. As a result? Who knows. Isaiah Berlin, who was present, called the row ‘An execution. I would not have missed it for worlds.’ Others thought that nothing much had happened. The pattern of conflict is much more usual than a pattern of unanimity. That is why incongruities in the Gospels tend to convince me of their veracity.