Friday, January 13, 2012

Prologue: Roxy Smothers and the Lost Treasure of the Kurgans

Interview with Roxy Smothers, 1973:

So you want to talk about The War, darling? Good, I thought you were going to ask me what sort of tree I wanted to be.

I know all about the war, since I was there from the beginning.

You know, darling, many people talk endlessly about the causes of the Second World War. Well, it really was quite simple. The World War Number Two began because Eric von Schnitzel lost a poker game to Rufus Firefly! Everything else followed from that.

Now do keep up with me darling, this may get a bit confusing.

It was the summer of 1939, I was still under contract at Mr. Hecuba’s studio. And for some reason, Mr. Hecuba loved the work of von Schnitzel. Von Schnitzel got his start in Berlin in the “cabaret days.” His work was always brooding and moody. Sort of like the stuff Fritz Land and Murnau produced but without the talent. I understand von Schnitzel is quite the rage in the film schools these days, forgotten genius and what-not. Now I had always found Eric nice but a bit overburdened with bombast and underburdened with intellect. Still one plays the hand one is dealt, I suppose. He was also a horrible card player

By the way, darling, have you seen that “Caberet” film? What a simply dreadful piece of fluff, so overwrought and nothing like it really was back then. And that Liza child, can’t sing anything like her mother. Garland? No I didn’t ever work with her but I did get drunk with her a number of times. Oh, but that little Joel Grey is quite adorable. He reminds me of a capuchin monkey I once worked with in Borneo. Funny, that was a von Schnitzel project too?

In any event, Mr. Hecuba felt that I should be the star of von Schnitzels latest project, some sort of vapid costume melodrama about the love between some old Polish king and some Lithuanian girl that ended badly. I knew it would be dreadful stuff but fortunately, it was going to be shot in Ruritania. Now today, everyone thinks of Ruritania as one of those dreary Communist countries somewhere east of Vienna where there’s plenty of missiles and not enough toilet paper. But back before The War, Ruritania was a lovely place, charming in a storybook sort of way, even with the faint odor of cabbage everywhere.

I had actually lived there for a few months the year before. My fifth, (or was it sixth?) husband, the one right after Biggles, was Prince Bronislav Radziwill. He was the son of old King Ruprikt who had been king for simply ages and ages and who was a very nice old fellow but, like most of the Ruritanian Radziwills, not the sharpest hunk of cheese as they say.

Now old Broni was not your typical Radziwill. Oh, he had the good looks and the daring courage, and even the speech impediment but he was clever. Devilishly clever. So clever in fact that they said he was not a Radziwill at all and that his mother must have been nabbed by a czericoot, which is some sort of legendary Ruritanian satyr. Although, come to think of it, I vaguely remember that old Ruprikt’s Queen, Gigi, a former can-can girl, was said to employ an equerry named Cherrycoate but who knows.

Also Broni was randy as a mountain goat. Not that I minded when it was directed at me but unfortunately he was not monomaniacal, at least in that regard or to me. But as I did say, he was clever. That’s why it took me a few months to discover that he had been sneaking around my back with sort of little tart of a third-rate ballerina. It was Broni’s chauffeur, Raoul, who showed me proof of Broni’s infidelity. Well, to make a long story short, we split up, with Broni promising me a large alimony settlement if I kept things quiet. Despite being angry, I left quietly. Not usually my style but I did want to preserve my dignity and did I mention it was a very large sum of money.

But then six months go by, and not one atvara did I see. What? Oh, the gold atvara was the currency in old Ruritania, named after some sort of chicken-headed dragon, I think. I couldn’t get any sort of satisfaction from the courts and if you think lawyers are terrible in this country, you should see what they were like in Ruritania - why they didn’t outlaw trial by combat until 1927.

But then along comes von Schnitzel with his project – he always filmed on location, even back then - and I had a perfect excuse to get into Ruritania and settle accounts with that weasel Broni and his little tart. If all else failed, I still had the keys to the Royal Palace and could at least help myself to some of the Crown Jewels.

So I find myself on the way to Ruritania. Now von Schnitzel had some sort of phobia of the Nazis, refused to travel anywhere they controlled. Of course it got harder to avoid them as time went on and by the summer of 1939, one simply couldn’t get to eastern Europe without a great deal of trouble if one wanted to stay out of Greater Germany.

So rather than a nice liner or the Hindenburg, we have to take a second rate steamer to Freedonia. Ughh, what a horrid place that was, run by that little crook Firefly! He wasn’t even a very good crook. Wouldn’t have even been President if that old harpy Teasdale hadn’t brought him in. Oh, I know he was a great hero in that war against Sylvania, but I think he just got lucky.

The same way he got lucky playing cards with von Schnitzel our first night there. Of course, von Schnitzel lost and he could never admit what a terrible gambler he was so he accused Firefly of cheating. Now accusing a nation’s President of cheating at penny-ante cards isn’t the best way to start a visit to new country, even in Freedonia, and so we found ourselves on the first train to Grauheim before noon the next day.

The problem was that this was August 1939 and Graustark had just gone fascist a short time before and everyone was “heiling” someone or something and that tin-pot dictator, Marshal Rhododendron, was wailing about the evil Ruritania Slavs oppressing the Volksgoth minority, Hitler declared solidarity with his southern Aryan brothers and the panzers were rolling through the streets of Grauheim. The worst thing was that the border to Ruritania was being shut down for days at a time as the war scare went on.

The border was closed when we arrived and the streets were full of Nazis and watch salesmen. Von Schnitzel was so nervous; I decided to take him to the only place worth going in all Graustark, Ermeric’s…

Excerpt from The Sun’s Also Shiny, The Great American Novel, by Ernest Hummingbird:

The writer knew he should be back at the typewriter, getting something done. But he also knew that the typewriter could wait for his brilliance. The typewriter was patient and appreciated his attentions. It was never jealous. But Elena was. As was Marita. And Consuela from the Paraguayan Embassy. And Countess Eugenie. All wanted his attention. He tried to decide who he would call first. He had a drink while he decided. He mixed himself a Floridita Special. It was perfect of course, dry enough that the vermouth was barely a hint, the breath of an angel.

He narrowed it down to calling Marita or Elena. Consuela he would call after midnight.

So he had another drink. This time it was a Tobacco Old Fashioned that he first tasted at the Waldorf. It was perfect.

And so he waited and he drank. He knew The War was coming. He got to have a sense about such things. Of course, the tanks and armored cars and troops that were all rumbling through the street were a pretty good clue too.

He knew that it would be soon and that he would go to it, report on it, write about it. His stories would be perfect, of course, setting the standard for war correspondents for decades to come.

But when it started, how would he get to it? The other night, at Marshal Rhododendron’s reception for his new allies, the writer made no friends among the government bureaucrats, praising the Ethopians, and the Spanish Republicans, and the Chinese (all of whom he had fought for). Plenty of sour faces and angry voices there. Silly little men.

Then there was the dance. The Marshal fancied himself an excellent dancer and, for soldier, he wasn’t bad. But the Marshal chose the tango to demonstrate his skill. If there was one dance the writer truly loved, it was the tango. How could he let that buffoon ruin it? Of course, cutting in on a dictator is never a wise idea nor is it a good idea to leave a reception with a dictator’s wife. And mistress.

No, he supposed that the government wouldn’t be approving his press pass.

He had another drink while he thought about his options. It was a Black Forest Sazerac that he first tasted in New Orleans, just after he covered Huey Long’s assassination. The drink was perfect.

Then he realized the answer. If he could only get to Ruritania, there weren’t any American reporters there, they had all gone to cover the other war, the one brewing in Poland. Plus everyone said that Ruritania was bound to lose and lose badly. He liked those kind of odds. Yes, The War was coming here too, he knew it, he could taste it in the air, like the metallic taste of ozone when a storm was coming.

How to get across the closed border? He’d figure it out of course, in his usual brilliant way but he’d have to think about. Over a drink. And the best drinks in Grauheim were to be had at Emeric’s…

Diary of Zoya BupkisFebruary 6, 1939

Dear Diaryushka,

Who would have thought that I would be accepted into the Corps de Ballet here in the Royal Strelzov Ballet. All of Mamushka’s hard work and sacrifice, after Papa died of typhus, putting me through convent school at Saint Kudzu’s and then the dance instruction under Madame Miroslava, have finally paid off. Who knows in a few years, I may become a soloist or even a prima ballerina….

February 12, 1939

Dear Diaryushka,

So wonderful,!I have met the great Prince Bronislav, fifth or maybe sixth in line to the throne, depending on how you figure it. He is a most courteous man, asking for ME to come to his box so that he could compliment me on my dancing. He said I had WONDERFUL ankles. He wished me well and said he would come to my EVERY PERFORMANCE!

February 19, 1939

Dear Diaryushka

The wonderful, handsome, beautiful Prince Bronislav, who is fifth or maybe sixth in line to the throne, depending on how you figure it, has asked me to dine with him tomorrow. AT THE PALACE ITSELF! After the performance, he came to my dressing room, well the general dressing room but his chauffeur did make all the other girls leave. The Prince told me he had the WARMEST of REGARDS for me. He looked at me so strangely – it reminded me of the way Madame Miroslave used to look at me during my stretching exercises. But he invited to dine with him. What shall I wear.

February 20, 1939

Dear Diaryushka,

Oh my beloved Prince! Oh, dear, dear Bronislavushka! What Passion! What Love! What comfortable beds!

Bani (Mrs.) Zoya Radziwill
Bani (Mrs.) Zoya Radziwill
Bani (Mrs.) Princess Zoya Radziwill

February 27, 1939

Dear Diaryushka

Things are so complicated. I did not know that Bronislavushka was married! But of course it was a horrid arranged marriage, just like in the novels and melodrama, to some horrid American gold digger. Dear Bronislavushka is trying to have the travesty annulled so that we might be together FOR EVER AND EVER. But until then, we must keep our love secret. Who knew that a simple country girl like me would live a life right out of an operetta?

March 17, 1939

Dear Diaryushka

Things are ever so complicated. Bronislav – he doesn’t like being called anything else, not even Sweety Pooki-ukums – says we must keep things secret a little longer. But he has a wonderful idea. He has gotten me a position with the Ministry of the Arts. I am to be a Special Assistant to the Deputy Minister for Folk Music and Polka Dancing. Imagine a simple country girl like me now being a Government Official!

April 1, 1939

Dear Diaryushka

How I do miss Bronislav. Oh, the job is fine and everyone is so very nice to me, especially after Bronislav came to visit me at lunch one day, but I am still not sure what my job is, it changes so often. Yesterday they had me listening to the yodeling finalists from Pupushki Province. And the day before that they had me model swimming attire. I wasn’t sure about that until they told me that it was for a travel advertisement and that our country needed to encourage tourism. Oh, when shall that horrid American woman finally go away?

June 24, 1939

Dear Diaryushka

No word from Bronislav. When I called his chauffeur told me that there was some sort of crisis he was attending to, something to do with the fascist taking over Graustark.

July 1, 1939

Dear Diaryushka

The trouble with Graustark is continuing so I still have not seen Bronislav in weeks. The government has been “mobilized” and “militarized” which means that the Ministry is now the Ministry of Propaganda and we are all now part of the Army! I am actually a Poruchnik or Lieutenant as the French say. Who would have thought a simple country girl would become an officer!

August 15, 1939

Dear Diaryushka

I have begun to read the newspapers everyday now. I am quite the intellectual and have even suggested to the Minister, oh sorry, he is now General Sltski that I become an intelligence officer since I know so much about politics and such now. For instances, did you know that Graustark is made up of ethnic Goths and we have got some here in Ruritania who Graustark says want to be part of Graustark? And did you know that Germany has signed an alliance with Graustark and that there may be an ACTUAL WAR?

One thing I just noticed, the paper says that Bronislav was divorced from his wife, the horrid American, some months ago? What can this mean? There was also a picture of him leaving a night club with some red-haired girl on his arm. I shall have to call Bronislav tomorrow.

August 16, 1939

Dear Diaryushka

Bronislav has said that what the paper was mistaken, the marriage is not officially over but it will be very soon, probably by the beginning of September, then we shall be wed! And the red-haired woman was Countess Oopfackr who is an expert in protocol and etiquette. He was consulting her on the details of our wedding which he says will be the greatest that the Kingdom has ever seen! And he had so wanted it to be a surprise!

But then he got very serious and told me he needed me on a very special mission for our Nation. He wanted me to go to Graustark on a secret mission to bring in an American film director who was going to make a movie that will inspire the whole country for the fight with the fascist! But it was secret, I must tell no one and must go myself. When I asked how I would get across, he told me to go in civilian clothes but to be sure to take my military identification in case the border guard stop me – they are required to honor an officer and will let me cross.

August 20,1939

Dear Diaryushka

I was about to go on my secret mission when I suddenly received unexpected help. I told Mamushka about my trip – oh I know Bronislav told me not to tell anyone but mamushkas don’t count in that. Anyway, Mamushka became worried and said she would get me help. So this evening, a dark girl, one of the hill people who might even be a gypsy, with all sorts of weapons, showed up in my office at the Ministry. She said she was the daughter of the notorious brigand Hozzenko. She said her father had answered Mamushka’s plea and sent her to help me. She said she will smuggle me across the border easily and help bring my American out as well. Isn’t that interesting? Who would have thought a simple country girl like I would have such adventures?

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