MAYO METHOT: MORE THAN YOU KNOW

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The sad passing of Lauren Bacall, aged 89, leads to various melancholy reflections, among them the fact that the previous Mrs. Bogart, Mayo Methot, seems now completely forgotten, remembered only as a footnote labeled “mean drunk.”

Peter Lorre, it was said, once drolly offered to demonstrate what a volatile couple Humphrey and his first spouse were, sidling past them and uttering only the words “General MacArthur.” Within a minute of this verbal depth charge being released, Methot was clawing her husband’s face open while he attempted to club his better half unconscious with a whiskey glass. But when not engaged in such charming interplay, Methot was a riveting screen personality whose appeal is more or less diametrically opposite to that of her successor.

Bacall was elegant, slender and beautiful, with a studied poise that allowed her to seem ageless when just a kid. Methot was a short and curvy woman who could convincingly play a worn-out, maternal tart at the age of 28. Her broad-planed face, wide eyes, daintily hooked nose and tight mouth evoked a drunken owl. Onscreen, she ran the gamut from quivering affront to sodden resignation—poise didn’t seem part of her repertoire.

By the time Methot hit the silver screen (in 1930’s Taxi Talks, with cabbie Spencer Tracy), she was already a Broadway star, notably introducing Vincent Youmans’ “More Than You Know” in Great Day, one of those endlessly reworked 1920s musicals whose plot summary goes Ring Lardner one better (“… a brother and sister … are about to be turned out of their ancestral Louisiana mansion. The girl goes to work in a Spanish casino and cabaret, where baseless insinuations are made against her virtue, and later a levee along the Mississippi bursts—the connection is not quite clear,” the New York Times mused). Pre-Code Hollywood showcased her in a series of hardboiled roles: chanteuses, molls, castoff wives, tabloid murderesses.

A peak performance is her Lil Blair in Columbia’s tangy Virtue (1932). While Carole Lombard’s Stanwyck-tough streetwalker, gone straight for love of foursquare Pat O’Brien, is the central figure, Mayo Methot steals the show as her tender, weary pal. She is first seen in her hotel room at Forty-Eighth and Eighth, offering money, shelter, and wise advice to Lombard’s Mae. Blowsy in her kimono, frowsting over gin and a record of “Frivolous Sal,” she is nonetheless beautiful as she contraltoes “Come here babe—you can’t kid this old-timer. You’re moving right in here with me.” The glance the two exchange in a mirror as Lil slips money into Mae’s purse, to a murmur of “Thanks, Lil,” places them in the pantheon of pre-Code sisterhood, along with Stanwyck and Blondell in Night Nurse.

Jack La Rue, two years older than Methot but convincingly much younger as her down-market toyboy Toots, weaves bonelessly around her snappish, determined little figure. Their interplay is gorgeous—director Buzzell couldn’t resist devoting precious time, out of the feature’s 65 minutes, to their mismatched gaits as they enter a diner, Lil trotting and matronly, Toots dragging his feet like a sullen adolescent. Later Lil offers Toots a light from her cigarette and suggests nothing so much as a mother bird feeding her nestling. A glimpse of Methot’s explosive temperament is provided by her jealous leap off the sofa when she realizes that Toots is chiseling.

The last shot before the typically hasty happy windup belongs to Lil, who has made a great sacrifice for Mae. Pat O’Brien murmurs, “Thanks, Lil,” and exits. The camera moves in on her determined, desolate face.

Louise Brooks, in her “Humphrey & Bogey” essay, theorized that “[e]ach of Humphrey’s wives was fittingly chosen to meet the trials of his career.… [H]e met Mayo and she set fire to him. Those passions—envy, hatred and violence—which were essential to the Bogey character, which had been simmering beneath his failure for so many years, she brought to a boil, and blew the lid off all his inhibitions forever…. With the release of Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart had become big business. It was time for Lauren Bacall, who was primarily a business woman, to make her entrance. She, who was also to become his perfect screen partner, as seductive as Eve, as cool as the serpent.”

Bacall, typically flanked by a bottle and a column of cigarette smoke, looked like women are supposed to look after the witness has had a few drinks. Methot looked like the morning after. But she promised a more memorable night.

by Phoebe Green and David Cairns

THE CLOWN PRINCE OF SLAVERY

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In 1820, Congress forbade Americans from participating in the international slave trade, making slave-running an act of piracy, a hanging offense. It was an easy gesture. America had no need to import more slaves; between 1790 and the start of the Civil War the domestic slave population in the U.S. soared from around seven hundred thousand to over four million. Conditions were the opposite in Cuba and Brazil, however, where slaves working on the vast sugar plantations and in the gold mines perished at appalling rates. Constantly hungry for new slaves from Africa, Cuba and Brazil bought at least two million in the first half of the nineteenth century. Running slaves to those countries was an extremely lucrative business that Americans found irresistible, and the government did almost nothing to enforce the ban. In the whole long history of the transatlantic slave trade, only one American sea captain ever swung for it, and that wasn’t until the very end of the practice, in 1862, when the Lincoln administration chose to make an example of him.

To evade the British and U.S. warships trying to stop them, slave-runners needed fast ships. Launched from a Long Island shipyard in 1857, the Wanderer was the most impressive racing yacht of its time. With its sleek, revolutionary design it could make an astounding twenty knots, outrunning any ship at sea, including steamers. It was also sumptuously appointed, because it was a rich man’s toy. The owner, Colonel John Johnson, was a member of the New York Yacht Club. He was not a New Yorker but a Louisianan, owner of a cotton plantation. In 1858 Johnson sold the Wanderer to another Southerner, a Charleston man named William Corrie. Corrie was acting as a front for yet another Southerner with New York connections: Charles Augustus Lafayette Lamar.

The wide-flung Lamar family included a future Supreme Court justice, Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar II, and a former president of the Republic of Texas, Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar. Charles’s father Gazaway Bugg Lamar was one of the wealthiest men in Savannah, an innovator in steamboat shipping, a cotton factor with large interests in several plantations and warehouses, and director of Savannah’s Bank of Commerce. In 1846 Gazaway moved to Brooklyn and helped found the Bank of the Republic, originally on Hanover Square and then on Wall Street. Among other transactions the bank sold Georgia state bonds (the Georgia governor was an in-law) to New York investors.

Like most Southern gentry, his son Charles harbored uncompromising opinions about slavery. He felt it was the height of hypocrisy that buying and selling domestic slaves was perfectly legal, but bringing new slaves over from Africa carried the death penalty. His adventures in the African slave trade were less about making money — he had that to burn — than about proving a point and defying laws he considered unjust.

In New York, Corrie had no trouble hiring a crew. At Port Jefferson on Long Island the Wanderer was provisioned as though it were heading on a world cruise, including water tanks with a capacity of fifteen thousand gallons. Everyone on the waterfront could see what was going on, and when the yacht sailed out of Port Jefferson a Navy ship intercepted it and forced it to dock at the Battery in Manhattan. There an assistant district attorney came aboard, with the U.S. Marshal for New York — Captain Isaiah Rynders, a long-time Tammany Hall ruffian and as corruptible as any lawman could be. Corrie treated them to a splendid luncheon at the rosewood captain’s table, they left in a jolly mood, and the Wanderer was free to make for Charleston.

From there, Corrie sailed across the Atlantic to the mouth of the Congo, where he shoved more than four hundred captured Africans, mostly boys, below decks. The Wanderer effortlessly outran British and American warships to make it home. At the end of November 1858 it reached Jekyll Island off the coast of Georgia, and the Africans were percolated into the existing slave population of the area. All Savannah buzzed with excited rumors. A slave ship from Africa was something no Georgians had seen in some time. Folks gawked at the African “greenhorns” as though they were celebrities.

The press in New York and Washington picked up the story, forcing President James Buchanan to a reluctant show of action. Federal marshals in Georgia impounded the Wanderer, arrested a few of the crew, and went looking for the Africans. A district attorney brought indictments against Charles Lamar and a handful of the others the following spring. It wasn’t easy bringing Lamar to trial in Savannah, where he was not only local royalty but now a hero for having so brazenly defied the Yankees. He played the role to the hilt and had a grand time doing it. When the government auctioned the Wanderer, as it usually did with impounded slave ships, Lamar bid on it, and only one Savannah man dared to bid against him. Lamar outbid this rival by one dollar, then reputedly gave him a beating for his impudence.

Now that he was the owner (again) of the ship, Lamar claimed that everything it had held was also his property, including not only its incriminating logs and other paperwork from the trip, but its cargo of Africans as well. A local judge actually ordered that two of them be handed over to him. In New York, the Tribune and the Times ran flabbergasted editorials, with the Times marveling that “a slave-dealer, a kidnapper of negroes, a felon guilty of an act equivalent in the meaning of the statute to piracy,” was allowed “to snap his fingers in the face of the law” in an act of “cowardly pilfering and spiritless piracy.” Lamar fired off letters to both the Tribune and the Times, challenging editors Horace Greeley and Henry Raymond to duels.

The American Colonization Society, which “repatriated” American blacks to Africa, raised fifty thousand dollars to send some of Lamar’s rounded-up Africans to Liberia, where it promised to find them gainful employment. Lamar offered to match the sum, joking that he’d find work for them too, right here in America. He took to going everywhere with one of his new boy slaves, whom he called Corrie. Meanwhile in Charleston, three grand juries refused to bring charges against the real Corrie for his part in the escapade.

The Wanderer's arrested crewmen stood trial late in 1859 and won easy acquittals. In 1860, facing the high improbability that any jury of Southern men would convict Lamar of a capital offense, the government dropped its case against him. Late that year Lamar and accomplices broke into a Savannah jail to free another man who'd been involved in the Wanderer exploit. A judge sentenced Lamar to thirty days, and allowed him to spend it under house arrest. When the Civil War commenced, Lamar joined the Confederate army, attained the rank of colonel, and was one of the last rebel officers to die in battle, on April 16, 1865.

That left his father, Gazaway Bugg Lamar, to carry on the family tradition of defying the Yankees. In the months leading up to the war he’d shipped rifles from New York to Savannah. When the war got under way he claimed that as a Southerner his life was “repeatedly threatened by mobs” of patriotic New Yorkers and moved back to Savannah. There he became a major stockholder in the Importing and Exporting Company of Georgia, set up to run Union blockades. He also bought and warehoused a huge cache of cotton, predicting that the price would soar as war cut off production and shipping.

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