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Anton Siodmak played tennis for a living. He was not on the circuit and he was not exactly a hustler, but his ability on the court made him welcome at the better weekend tennis parties and gave him permanent access to the more elaborate north/south courts in Beverly Hills and Bel Air and Holmby Hills and Trousdale and Malibu. He charmed the men and occasionally slept, especially when he was younger, with the wives of inattentive husbands. There were even husbands, it was said, who implicitly encouraged this attention, because their tastes had become more catholic as the attractions of home and family had begun to pale.

Besides his lob – a stroke perfected as he edged past sixty and one that maddened younger, stronger but less talented players – Anton’s most negotiable asset was his smile. He supplemented his income from the court, and the occasional bonbon from those bored and grateful wives, as a greeter in one or two of the more fashionable restaurants frequented by Hollywood royalty. He could be found just inside the door, where he would plant a kiss on both cheeks, in the European style, and laugh and exchange gossip and rearrange his date book for the following weekend – singles here, doubles there and the private screening on Sunday night, Marty’s rough cut with a wild music track because Bernie Herrmann’s score isn’t ready, drinks at seven, dinner seven-thirty, we’ll run the picture at eight, Costa’s coming by if his plane gets in on time, and Sydney and Claire, and next Sunday, you cocksucker, it won’t be love, love, I’ll take two games . . .

I did not know Anton all that well – I once made a stab at tennis but was glad to give it up when I broke my elbow – but I would see him at the odd screening and when I ate at the restaurant he would kiss me on both cheeks and call me ‘Zhannee’ and say that the dailies on so-and-so’s picture were so lousy that the crew had stopped wearing the T-shirts with the film’s title printed on them.

When I learned that Anton had been killed in a waterskiing accident in Portugal, where he went every summer to play tennis, I felt genuinely sad. He was an essential figure in the local community, because he had the gift of making people feel it was all right occasionally to be frivolous. His memorial service was held, fittingly, on a private tennis court in Beverly Hills, a vast complex complete with its own bleachers, at the foot of a mogul’s estate, a court to which Anton had a key and where he could give lessons or bring the pigeons who thought they could take a set from him. The court was covered that day with AstroTurf to protect the playing surface, and instead of seats in rows for the mourners there were restaurant tables with bright cloths and a bar and gay waiters from the various restaurants where Anton had kissed the favored on both cheeks and passed on the latest scandal. It would be a party, we were told, not a wake. Anton would have wanted it that way.

I came directly from a doctor’s appointment in Santa Monica and met my wife Joan at the service, and as I sat there under the hot August sun, death was very much on my mind. I thought Anton had actually died under the best possible circumstances for him, a moment of terror as he realized the inevitable outcome of the accident, then an instant later the eternal dark. I did not like to think of him sick or paralyzed, his smile and his serve no longer negotiable. The eulogists, all tennis partners or opponents, thought differently. They praised Anton’s independence, which they claimed to envy, his ability to march to his own beat, free of all the responsibilities that came under the heading of ‘making a living’. What most of the mourners, or celebrants, because this after all was a party, considered the highest praise came from a producer who said that in twenty-five years of friendship, a quarter of a century of foot-faults and let balls, Anton ‘never once offered me a script’. This was a code they all understood, implying that most damning breach of the local etiquette, the favor demanded by a retainer: the subtext was that Anton knew his place.

The service ended and the parking attendant brought my car. As we drove away, my wife said, ‘What did the doctor say?’

There had not been an appropriate moment to mention my visit to the doctor in Santa Monica. ‘He scared the shit out of me.’

‘What did he say?’

‘He said I was a candidate for a catastrophic cardiovascular event.’

 

Internal Affairs Investigation

Q: True?

A: More or less.

Q: More? Or less.

A: A name changed. A certain dramatic restructuring.

Q: Time collapsed?

A: By about two hours. But all the same day. And I am not sure whether it was that doctor or another doctor who said I was a candidate for a catastrophic cardiovascular event. I was on my way to Europe. A doctor, maybe this one, maybe another one the next day, asked how long I planned to be gone. I said seven weeks, including a month in New York. He asked where I was going in Europe. I said Germany and Ireland. He said do you speak German. I said no. He said how many good hospitals do you think you can find in the wilds of western Ireland. I said I have a feeling you don’t think I should go. He said I think you’d be mad. He said I’m not going to say you’re going to have a heart attack. You could live to be eighty without having a heart attack. I wouldn’t bet on it, but it’s possible. You have a history. Your father died at fifty-two of heart disease, your uncle at fifty. At this point, I think I mentioned George Santayana, you know, those who forget history are condemned to repeat it, but I am not sure. In any event I am sure he would not have known who Santayana was. He was about eight feet tall and blond and very pleased with himself, really thrilled. He had that look like he thought he could fuck every nurse in his office and then go out and do the Santa Monica ten-kilometre run. So whether it was this guy, this cardiologist, or my own internist the next day who said I was a candidate et cetera, I am not sure. It just seemed to fit better here.

Q: That’s what you mean by dramatic restructuring?

A: If I did it, yes.

Q: Anything else?

A: When I told my wife he scared the shit out of me, I started to cry.

Q: Anything else?

A: I thought I was going to run into John Sweeney at the service.

Q: Who is John Sweeney?

A: He is the son of a bitch who murdered my niece Dominique.

Q: Could you elaborate?

A: In late October 1982, John Sweeney wrapped his fingers around the neck of my niece, Dominique Dunne, and strangled her for three and one-half minutes, choking the life from her body. He was tried for murder and convicted of voluntary manslaughter; he was sentenced to six and a half years in prison. With time off for time served and with good time – one day reduced from his sentence for every day served with no serious breach of penitentiary rules – he was released from the California state prison at Susanville in two and a half years. I did not attend the trial. A murder trial is an ugly spectacle, and if my own daughter had been the victim I would like to think I still would not have attended the proceedings. I have watched too many murder trials, known too many lawyers and too many judges and too many prosecutors to have many illusions about the criminal justice system. Any trial is a ritual complete with its own totems. Calumny is the language spoken, the lie accepted, the half-truth chiseled on stone. In the real world, most prosecutors crave to be in private practice, where they would defend the same people whose crimes they claim, as prosecutors, debase society, offering the same extenuating circumstances that are the object of their prosecutorial scorn. Before the first preliminary hearing, I could predict that the counsel for the accused would present the standard defense strategy in cases of this sort: the victim, unable to speak for herself, would be put on trial, and presented in effect as a co-conspirator in her own murder. The prosecuting attorney was equally aware that this would be the defense tactic; if he had been defending he would have made the same decision. The greatest offense of which John Sweeney might have been convicted was murder in the second degree, and in California a conviction for murder in the second degree does not carry the death penalty. If John Sweeney was not therefore a candidate for capital punishment, then the state would have me believe that other lives were more valuable than Dominique’s. This is an idea I cannot accept. I would have been quite willing myself to do bodily harm to John Sweeney (or perhaps, to be more honest and less bombastic, I think in a moment of rage I might have been willing), and with a certain ambivalence to have the state of California put him to death in the gas chamber at San Quentin. When the state, however, and its servitors decide that one life is more valuable than another, that one murder is more heinous than another, that there are degrees of murder – some murders not even called murders but manslaughter – then capital punishment becomes a matter of bureaucratic whim, an intolerable idea. I would like to believe, nonetheless, in a justice regnant. I have worked what Edith Wharton called the underside of the social tapestry for most of my professional life. I know that the laws of nature, however aberrant, rule in any penitentiary system. I would like to believe that John Sweeney was buggered in prison – he was young and soft, perfect material for the cell-block punk – and if so, that at least one of the cons who sodomized him – no: fucked him up the ass – had Aids, and infected him with it. It is an ignoble thought. So be it. I wish him every ill. I hope he dies a death as miserable as the one he inflicted on my niece.

Q: And why did you think that John Sweeney would be at the service?

A: Because he was out of prison and working as a chef in some restaurant in LA. He knew Anton Siodmak. All those restaurant people know each other. He had worked for a lot of the people who were doing the catering that day. I just thought he might show up. As a matter of fact, one of his former employers called and asked if I were going to the service. I had the sense he was sounding me out so he could let Sweeney know whether I was going or not.

Q: What would you have done?

A: Left. I wouldn’t have caused a scene. I was still shaking from what that doctor said. Also it was Anton’s day for tribute, and a scene would have laid a heavy trip on his wife. She said the most poignant thing at the service. You had him during the day and in the evening, she said. I had him at night. At night, alone, then I think Anton would really have been interesting. At night he wouldn’t have had to smile.


His Roth
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