Howard Fast on: A Child is Lost

from: Being Red pp. 159-162

... It had come home to me some months earlier, and curiously it was brought home most sharply when Ruth Field's two-and-a-half-year-old daughter got herself lost. The Fields lived in the apartment next to ours. Leonard Field, Ruth's husband, was in the service, fortunately working at the Signal Corps unit in New York, and when I went overseas, both he and Ruth rallied around Bette, and Ruth became a dear friend of Bette's and of mine too. She was a delightful woman, a Christian Scientist whose brimming health seemed to bear witness to her belief. John Cheever worked with Leonard, and he was a frequent dinner guest at our home as well as at the Fields'. We were further knit by the fact that Ruth's younger daughter Kathie she had two girls was about the same age as our Rachel. Ruth and Bette went to the park each day with the three girls.

One day while Mary Ruth, Ruth's older child, was at school, Ruth and Bette went to the grocery store with Rachel and Kathie. They took their eyes off the little girls for no more than half a minute, and when they turned around, Kathie had disappeared. The next hour was surely the most terrible that Ruth had ever endured and almost as awful for Bette and me. Someone had seen Kathie go out of the store, alone, but after that, every trace of her disappeared. Ruth began to race along the adjoining streets while Bette ran home to get me to help. Fortunately, my car was downstairs, parked close to the house, and I took off from street to street, looking, questioning, becoming increasingly desperate, pleading with people to try to remember whether they had seen a little girl lost. I passed Ruth and Bette several times, but they preferred to stay on foot. And then the first bright thought of the day struck me: Why don't I go to the local precinct station?

Which I proceeded to do, and there, in the lost child pen, was a dirty but quite happy Kathie Field. For the most part, Kathie was inarticulate. You do not get much specific information from a child of two and a half; but what we did manage to get out of her was this. She left the store, lost her sense of direction, began to run, stopped, began to cry, was picked up by a woman, who soothed her, talked about the store where her mother was shopping; she was then taken to another grocery store, and since there was no sign of her mother, she was given over to a group of interested citizens, one of whom was a city trash collector. They decided that the trash collector, going in the right direction, should drop her off at the precinct house; being high up on his driver's seat, he could toot his horn on occasion and the mother might just notice. When I picked her up at the police station, the pen contained at least six lost kids, dirty but happy. The thing that impressed Kathie most was her ride on the garbage truck.

At dinner that evening, I said to Bette how sad it was that a child lost should evoke such visions of fear. There was horror, but we were blessed that there was less horror than human decency and compassion. She agreed. It was important to remember that, so why didn't I write something about it? After dinner, I sat down at the typewriter, and by two o'clock in the morning, I had eleven pages. It had simply poured out, a mirror to what that day had been for the Fields and for us. I called it A Child Is Lost and the following day I brought it to my literary agent, Elizabeth Otis.

I had hardly returned home when the phone rang. It was Elizabeth. She had read the piece and was absolutely overwhelmed. She said it was one of those pure things which happen on rare occasions, and she could sell it anywhere. She suggested that we sell it to This Week, the Herald Tribune insert, which was syndicated nationally and would pay the most money. I agreed, and then she said, "Howard, do you have a name to put on it?"

"What do you mean, name?"

"I mean we can't sell anything to a national magazine under your own name."

"I just don't believe you."

Or words to that effect. I believed her, and she didn't have to remind me that my name had been all over the newspapers since the hearing before the House committee. I knew it was happening and I knew it was coming, but that didn't make it any less of a shock. I had felt that as a writer I was to a degree invulnerable, no boss to fire me or discipline me. I was learning. I told Elizabeth sourly that she should use any name she desired, and she chose the name Simon Kent. So it was, A Child Is Lost by Simon Kent. But Elizabeth Otis was absolutely right in her estimation of the piece. This Week bought it immediately at the preposterous price she asked, and no sooner had it appeared than reprint requests began to come in to my agent. It became a small money machine, reprinted not only all over America but in England as well, and to cap it, a film offer.

Annie Laurie Williams, an intriguing middle-aged woman with a face and figure like Mae West and a mind like a steel trap, was the motion picture end of the McIntosh and Otis agency. She telephoned and told me to hold on to my seat: she had an offer from Louis B. Mayer to buy A Child Is Lost for $25,000, not at all a bad price for a night's work. Bette and I had spent the money earned by The American and funds were getting very tight. This $25,000 was a bonanza indeed.

We celebrated properly with dinner and champagne and continued to congratulate ourselves for the next few days, and then Annie Laurie telephoned and informed me that she had just spoken to Mr. Mayer's legal department, and they knew that Simon Kent was a pseudonym, and contracts could not be made out to a nonexistent person. They had to know the name of the author.

Suppose you tell them my name?

She sighed and asked me whether I understood what was going on in Hollywood. A witch hunt was under way there, and the whole film community was utterly shaken. The film community was polarizing, and two actors, Ward Bond and Ronald Reagan, were leading the attack on the liberals. The community was saturated with fear, and everyone was lining up to take sides, and one of the leaders of the anti-red, anti-liberal faction was Louis B. Mayer. He was becoming a fanatic on the subject, and Annie Laurie assured me that if she revealed my name as the author, not only would Mayer dump the project, but he might very well dump her in the bargain.

I suggested something else. I said that I would give her the power of attorney for this project, and as my agent, she should make the contract in her own name. She tried that, but the M-G-M attorneys still demanded the name of the real author, and then Mayer telephoned Annie Laurie again, raging at her this time that she had tried to "slide under his nose," as he put it, a piece of work by a man he hated more than anyone else on earth, a man who would never set foot in his studio again.

Annie Laurie waited for the next shoe to fall. She was almost sure that I had never met Mr. Mayer nor did I ever but then, who knew?

Howard Koch! As Annie Laurie told it, the name exploded from Mayer's lips. Howard Koch! It would take a long time, Mayer went on to say, for him to forgive her for trying to pan off Howard Koch's work on him. She pleaded with him, saying that it was not Howard Koch, but he would not listen. Howard Koch it was, and the deal was over. I never met Howard Koch, before or since.