The Great Pan American Airship Mystery, or, Why I Murdered Robert Benchley
by David Gerrold
After all is said and done, I blame Nikola Tesla.
It’s his fault.
Because—if we’re going to talk about cause and effect, then we have to go all the way back to the original cause.
No, Nikola Tesla did not set out to invent an efficient method of low-cost helium extraction—it was a side-effect of his coal-fusion research—but if he hadn’t discovered it, no one else would have. At least not in our lifetimes.
Tesla gave away many of his discoveries, but not this one—he patented the helium extraction process. The technology that followed created so many new industries and opportunities for profit that it pushed Tesla’s own company into the Fortune 500 within eighteen months.
Knowing that Tesla was unlikely to invest in lawyers and lawsuits, patent violations started cropping up everywhere. The Third Reich, for instance, began extracting their own helium from the Ruhr, the large coal fields located in the west of Germany in North Rhine-Westphalia—they used the helium to lift over a dozen huge vessels, all modeled after the luxurious Hindenburg.
Not to be outdone, the United States Congress created the National Aeronautics Studies Administration—NASA for short—to fund research and development in aerial transport.
Three years later, in June of 1937, the Great Pan American Airship Line began operations at their expansive new terminal on Welfare Island. Due to rising international tensions, as well as considerable domestic pressures against foreign competition, the trans-Atlantic German airships would be restricted to the airfield at Lakehurst, New Jersey.
To demonstrate America’s commitment to a new age of aerial transportation, Pan Am announced that the inaugural journey of their magnificent new flagship would be a coast-to-coast celebrity cruise. They held a nationwide contest to choose the name of the vessel they had nicknamed the Big Lady, and three lucky contestants would win berths on that first trip to prove that economical air travel for everyone was now a reality.
At 11:33 a.m. on Thursday, June 3, 1937, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt officially christened the vessel in a grand ceremony and the Pan American flagship Liberty lifted majestically into the air while the United States Marine Band played “America the Beautiful.” The Chorus of St. Patrick’s Cathedral accompanied, and WNBC broadcast the event on nationwide radio. RCA also broadcast an experimental television signal originating from the top of the Empire State Building. Receivers at Grand Central Terminal showed a grainy image of the Liberty’s liftoff, although most people could have simply stepped outside onto Forty-second Street or Fifth Avenue for a better view.
Three times larger than the Hindenburg, she was a gleaming silver illusion. She circled Manhattan Island three times while tugboats below thumped their horns, fireboats howled their sirens and sprayed jets of water, and Mayor La Guardia read a poem of salute by Robert Frost on the WNBC radio station.
Most people assumed that circling Manhattan was a salute to the city. Actually, it was an opportunity for Captain Bradley to test all the systems of the airship, one after the other, and reassure himself that everything was operating up to spec. It was a second shakedown cruise, unofficial but necessary. Coming around Battery Park for the third time, finally satisfied that the ship was handling the way he wanted, he spun the wheel to the left and the Big Lady turned gracefully to port. She was now officially on her way. We passed over the Statue of Liberty and out across New Jersey.
Aboard the vessel, a host of Broadway and Hollywood celebrities waved to the crowds below. George Jessel, Al Jolson, George and Ira Gershwin, and George M. Cohan waved from the portside windows. Dorothy Parker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Benchley, George S. Kaufman, Heywood Broun, and several other members of the notorious Algonquin Round Table waved from the starboard side. Also aboard were Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, and William “Billy” Mitchell. Sixty-five-year-old Orville Wright had been invited as well, but had politely declined. He still believed the foolish idea that heavier-than-air vessels would become the primary vehicle of modern air travel and felt it would be hypocritical to lend his name or support to this journey. Tesla had also declined the invitation, saying there was nothing in San Francisco to interest him right now.
Less notably, several high-ranking members of the army and navy were also among the complement of passengers, but were much less conspicuous. They seemed more concerned with the operational aspects of the Liberty than with the promotional aspects of the journey.
Pan Am’s official statements asserted that the average airspeed of the Big Lady would be 85 miles per hour, and that the non-stop voyage would take no more than 36 hours. The Big Lady would be going around the south end of the Rocky Mountains rather than over. But some of the engineers were betting that Captain Bradley would push the engines hard, hoping to average more than 100mph—as well as crossing over the peaks to give the passengers a spectacular view of the mountaintops, ultimately arriving at San Francisco at 10:30 a.m. the next day, a journey of only 26 hours. If that did happen, then despite traveling more than 24 hours, we would still arrive an hour earlier than our departure time, an artifact of our westward passage through three time zones.
Heading west over New Jersey, many of the passengers still crowded the windows and speculated about the crowds below. Tiny people came running out of their houses and their businesses, shouting and pointing and staring skyward. They cheered and hollered and waved. When the shadow of the Liberty passed over, some of them panicked. We saw a few small children crying. They were carried inside by their reassuring mothers—where they promptly leaned out of the upstairs windows to stare again.
After a half-hour or so, once the second or third tray of drinks had been passed around, the Gershwins commandeered the piano in the salon and started playing. Later, Oscar Levant took over the piano, providing accompaniment for Cohan, Jessel, and Jolson as they worked their inebriated way through an impromptu medley of popular songs.
When they finally tired out, Jack Benny and Fred Allen began trading quips—it started with Fred Allen asking Jack Benny why he hated the violin so much that he kept playing it. Benny responded with an observation that the bags under Fred Allen’s eyes were so big they required their own porters. Allen replied that Jack Benny couldn’t ad-lib a belch after a plate of Hungarian goulash. Benny promptly turned to him and grumped, “You wouldn’t say that if my writers were here.”
I wished his writers were aboard as well. I would have loved to have met them. I assumed they would be very funny men.
I was—at that time—a guest relations steward aboard the Liberty. My job was to keep the customers happy for the nearly two days it would take to travel the 2,600 miles from New York to San Francisco—actually a bit more, because our course would zig-zag to fly over several important cities and landmarks. That meant maintaining the well-being of everyone onboard who assumed they were entitled to special
treatment—and that was everyone onboard. In the case of my specific charges, that mostly involved keeping them drunk enough to be cheerful, but not so drunk as to be uncontrollable. Passed-out was not an option.
But holding a tray of martinis was not my career goal. I intended to bootstrap my career by writing a memoir of this adventure. I planned to sell articles wherever I could to establish a name for myself.
I was already making notes for a profile of the celebrity doings for Life Magazine, a revealing slice of salacious gossip for The New Yorker, a report on the amenities of a flying hotel for Popular Science, a complementary article about the maintenance of the onboard necessities for Scientific American, a description of how well the six electric propellors performed for Popular Mechanics, and possibly even—I’d have to do it under a pen name—a futuristic story for Astounding about a giant passenger vessel journeying through outer space to Venus or Mars—I just needed a plot.
I had to trade a few favors, including a couple of sexual ones (that was fun), but I did get myself assigned to take care of the Algonquin Round Table crowd—that might have happened anyway. It turned out they were a boisterous group, hard to deal with, and none of the other stewards wanted to acommodate them and all of their shenanigans. A couple of the Algonquin group were putting away enough booze that their breath had become flammable. I expected—hoped—that after they settled in and became comfortable they would start discussing important literary issues.
Lunch was delayed because of the unscheduled performances. None of the staff were brave enough to interrupt the entertainers—the rest of the passengers would have dropped us out the nearest window—so we didn’t serve until we were well over eastern Pennsylvania and Oscar Levant remarked, “You can smell the cheese even from up here.”
We weren’t that high—he could have been right. The Liberty cruised below the clouds, usually only three or four hundred feet above the ground, mostly so passengers could have a great view of the landscape, but she was engineered to go much higher. Tanks of pressurized helium gas were stored along her keel to inflate additional lifting ballonets when more altitude was needed—such as flying over a mountain. To descend again, the extra helium would be released, or pumped back into the storage tanks. Large tanks of water were also used for ballast. This was the same water that passengers would use for washing. If the Liberty needed altitude quickly, it could be released in a massive shower. By the time it hit the ground, it would be little more than a mist. At worst, a momentary drizzle.
The Liberty carried two hundred passengers and eighty-five crewmembers. By comparison, a Hindenburg-class ship could carry only seventy-two passengers and required sixty-two crewmembers to manage the journey. The Liberty had been designed to carry four hundred souls, but Pan Am was using the inaugural journey to demonstrate the large cargo carrying capacity of the Liberty as well. A half-dozen new Fords were stored in her hold. None of the military officers would discuss it, but more than once I saw them scribbling numbers on yellow pads and arguing about balancing the weights of tanks, trucks, cannons, troops, and supplies.
Cross-country shipping by railroad could take anywhere from three days to two weeks, depending on how much you wanted to pay. For some industries, air transport would be both faster and cheaper—like fresh fruits and vegetables from the California fields to the New York markets. And then there were those lucrative mail contracts to consider.
After lunch, some of the passengers retired to their cabins to rest up for the rigors of dinner. The cabins were spacious and well-equipped, deliberately more luxurious than those found on any ocean-liner where space would be at a premium. The opposite was true aboard the Liberty. Here, weight was the limiting factor, not space.
Only the control gondola hung below the body of the craft. I’d delivered coffee and sandwiches to it on our training flight—it was a broad comfortable platform. All the other passenger and crew spaces were inside the Liberty’s envelope. Because a massive framework of aluminum girders and steel tension cables was needed to provide a stable structure for the huge array of giant lift bags, there was also considerable space beneath the ballonets for accomodations. There was almost too much space.
When Tallulah Bankhead boarded, she looked around the lobby and asked the nearest steward—me—“What time does this place reach San Francisco?” She had the most amazing voice, as deep and husky as a velvet martini. Then she stared into my eyes and asked, “Who do I have to fuck to get a drink?” You can bet that sent me scurrying.
The interior of the airship and all of her trim and accessories were decorated in the latest Art Deco style—Streamline Moderne—very light and bright, all minimalist and futuristic, exactly the statement Pan Am wanted to make. Willliam F. Lamb, one of the principal designers of the Empire State Building, had supervised the design of the passenger spaces of the airship. He was also onboard, somewhere.
A broad salon stretched across the front of the aircraft, outlined by a terrifyingly open horseshoe of glass. This was the main gathering place for the passengers. It was almost too sprawling, too wide, too open; it felt cavernous. Huge windows stretched across the front of the deck and circled wide around both sides—that and the high ceiling gave the whole chamber a broad spacious feeling, much like Hollywood’s conception of a blissful afterlife.
A second level of walkways circled the high windows so every passenger could have a grand view without ever having to crowd. All the travelers could easily observe the ground through the large downward-angled panes. The sheer size of those glass walls made it feel as if we were not within a vessel, but simply drifting along on an airy platform, as removed from the mundane cares of the world as the gods of Olympus—well, we were—but the sense of a heavenly condition was deliberate. We floated gracefully across the sky, trailing a massive shadow that traversed the ground below, a visible reminder of the Liberty’s astonishing size.
Across the main floor of the salon, there were step-up levels for service areas and step-down levels of various sizes for gatherings of passengers to discuss common interests. The chairs and couches were upholstered in muted shades of red, silver, and blue—all very Pan American. The floor was carpeted in a lighter blue, a reflection of the sky. The walls were eggshell-white with gold trim. Silvery murals portrayed Lady Liberty in a variety of heroic poses.
Just aft of the salon was a spacious dining hall. Behind that was a selection of smaller spaces: a cozier bar, a reading room, a smoking lounge for gentlemen, and a corresponding lounge reserved especially for the ladies. For overseas flights, the billiards room would be converted to a small casino. Further back, the airship contained a motion picture theater, a gymnasium, a quiet reading room stocked with many current magazines and a selection of popular books, even a bowling alley and a tennis court, and other lightweight amenities to alleviate the tedium of a long voyage. There was almost too much acreage on the main deck. The designers had run out of ideas before they had run out of space.
The original blueprints had included a swimming pool, with the water in it doubling as ballast. At the last moment, the airline had postponed the installation. It wasn’t the weight of the water that concerned the engineers, it was the weight of the support structure of the pool and all the additional plumbing and pumps and filters needed to maintain it. The pool hadn’t been completely ruled out, but the accountants at Pan Am had successfully argued that the loadweight could be more profitably used for cargo, and the company was still weighing the pros and cons.
After Pennsylvania, we headed across Lake Erie. Captain Bradley diverted course slightly south so that people all along the northern shore of Ohio—Cleveland, Lorain, Sandusky, and finally Toledo—could see the Liberty and cheer and wave. Beneath us, more boats tooted their horns and people waved flags and banners to catch our attention. Many of the passengers went to the windows to wave back.
But not the Round Table group. They had gathered themselves near the bar again and were proceeding to work their way through pitchers of martinis, as well as a heated discussion of something they called, “writer’s block.” That sounded promising. As a burgeoning author myself, I hoped to learn some of the wisdom of the sages, especially the hard part. How do you get the words onto the page?
Sometime after lunch, Dorothy Parker sent a radiogram to her editor: “I have not forgotten you. I have only forgotten to write the article.”
Two hours later, her editor wired back. I brought the radiogram to her myself. She plucked it from the tray, took a puff off her cigarette, and opened it nonchalantly. I had never seen anyone open a radiogram so nonchalantly before. She must have received so many of them in her career that she took them for granted. She looked around at the rest of the group. “He says,” she said, and read it aloud. “‘Put down the damn martini and find a typewriter. Benchley has one. He never goes anywhere without it, even if he has no intention of using it.’” She frowned across the table. “Is that true, Robert?”
Benchley had the good grace to look embarrassed. “Well, yes. It’s impossible to procrastinate properly without a typewriter.”
Mrs. Parker looked up at me, still waiting with the tray held out. “Are you waiting for a tip?”
Yes, ma’am. But I didn’t say it aloud. “Will there be a reply?”
“No. Yes. Send this back. ‘Benchley and typewriter defenestrated over—’” She frowned. “Where are we? Oh, it doesn’t matter. Defenestrate him over someplace interesting. No, make that boring. Oh, never mind. He’ll have to look up defenestrate and he hates looking things up. Begone now.”
I bewent all the way back to my station next to the bar. As much as I would have liked to eavesdrop on their conversation, it would have been rude—and against the rules. I was only allowed to approach if summoned by a gesture, or if I was emptying ashtrays.
Nevertheless, snatches of conversation still floated over to the bar, enough to suggest that the topic of writer’s block was still circling the conversation like a maiden aunt.
Because lunch had been delayed for more than an hour, dinner was also delayed, but only thirty minutes. We were over the northern part of Indiana when the sun touched the horizon ahead of us. Oscar Levant advised against looking out the windows at the broad plains of Indiana. “It’s only the people we fly over.”
The entire meal service was scheduled for ninety minutes. Soup, salad, fish, three kinds of carvery meat, dessert, coffee, and after-dinner drinks. The Algonquin crew managed to stretch it out to two and a half hours. By the time they finally heaved themselves laboriously from their chairs, it was nine o’clock and we were approaching the Chicago flyover. The city was a bright sprawl of lights ahead, searchlights sweeping the sky.
As we approached, we could hear music coming from a band on the pier, but the distance kept it from being clear or identifiable. It sounded like a badly tuned radio. According to Fred Allen it was “an excited crowd of bagpipers, accordion-players, and Jack Benny fans.” Beside him, Benny replied, “I’m having trouble seeing your fans, Fred. Are there any?”
Over the city, we were blinded by searchlights hitting us from the ground. They blazed up at us from everywhere, especially along the shoreline and the major boulevards. “It looks like a dozen Hollywood premieres,” said Bankhead. “Louis B. Mayer should see this. He’d crap his pants.” She pronounced it “Louie.”
“I wonder what it looks like from down there,” said a tiny woman, one of the contest winners. The winners had been picked by their weight, a fact not made known to the general public.
I took the opportunity to answer. “Did you see the glow in the water as we passed over the lake? That was our lights. The entire airship is outlined with Nikola Tesla’s new illuminators—the ones that give off almost no heat. He calls them light-emitting-diodes. They print them on some thin panels of glass. From the ground the Liberty looks like a great silver spoon, blazing across the sky. The airship’s name is spelled out in lights like a Broadway star—only bigger than any marquee on broadway. Each letter is twenty-four feet high.”
Beside her, a nondescript little man—the publisher of a pulp science fiction magazine, Thrilling Wonder Stories—spoke up. “Imagine if we could put a news-marquee on the side of the airship, like the one in Times Square. We could display messages to the people below.” He thought a moment. “Or perhaps we could put projectors inside the skin of the dirigible and show motion pictures on her sides. Of course, the skin of the ship would have to be translucent enough for the movie to show through. Perhaps someday we’ll have airships anchored above cities, projecting television programs to thousands of people at once.”
He frowned, another thought crossing his mind. “That would use a lot of elecricity, wouldn’t it?” Still frowning, he added, “I wonder if Professor Tesla’s wonderful diodes could somehow be reversed to turn light into electricity? You could put rows of panels across the top of the airship and power its engines off sunlight all day long. Hmmm.” He pulled out a notebook and hurriedly scribbled his thoughts into it. “Perhaps I’ll write a sequel. Ralph 124C42+ . . . .” He wandered off, lost in thought.
The woman, the one who’d won her passage in a contest, said, “What a strange little man. Is he an inventor?”
“His name is Gernsback. He’s a science fiction writer.”
She frowned in confusion. “Science fiction? What’s that?”
“Pulp fiction. The silly kind. The kind you don’t want to let your little boy read. Rocket ships to the moon. Giant mechanical brains. Robots. Silly things like that.”
She made a face. “Oh, that terrible stuff. No, we’d never let Jeffty read that trash.”
By ten, the Algonquins had reclaimed their place in the salon and another pitcher of martinis was meeting its olive-strewn fate.
“Do they ever stop?” the evening bartender whispered to me.
“I don’t know. I think Broun—or is that Woollcott?—got up to pee once. The rest of them must have iron kidneys.”
Between emptying ashtrays, retrieving empty pitchers and replacing them with full ones, occasionally delivering and sending telegrams, and always being as unobtrusive as possible, I managed to glean a sense of their evolving conversation. Tallulah Bankhead’s remark about Louis B. Mayer had sparked a conversation about writing for the movies, something that both Dorothy Parker and F. Scott Fitzgerald had dabbled with.
Before long, they were plotting a film of their own—or perhaps just plotting. The story involved, of course, a beautiful Broadway star traveling aboard a gleaming new airship when a terrible murder occurs. For the better part of an hour, the group argued about who to murder, perhaps someone in their own group? That ended abruptly when Bankhead declared, “Dah-ling, you can’t murder a writer. Nobody will notice. It has to be someone important.”
Oh, good grief. Didn’t they realize? The writers are the most important people in Hollywood. If it isn’t on the page, it isn’t on the stage! You have to take the words seriously!
But instead, they wasted another hour of discussion about who might be worth murdering. The comedians were quickly dismissed, so were Jolson, Jessel, and Cohan. The Algonquins finally settled on George Gershwin as a suitable victim, then moved on to speculating about the identity of the murderer and what possible motive he (or she?) might have for killing America’s most gifted composer.
“Possibly his brother, Ira?”
“Over a girl maybe . . . ?”
“How tawdry. How boring. Besides . . .”
“No, dear. George isn’t gay. He’s been bedding all those women—”
“—yes, trying to prove he’s a man.”
“What a wonderful way to prove it.” That was Oscar Levant, who’d been passing by, but stopped for the gossip.
I didn’t hear the end of that discussion—there were several other late-night gatherings that needed my attention, but none as interesting. The next time I passed by, they were arguing about writer’s block again. That was something I really wanted to hear about—how did the great ones get past it?
It was either Broun or Woollcott—I never could figure out which was which—who said, “Oh, there’s a very easy trick to break a block.”
Benchley was already glowing with inebriation, had been since liftoff, but he looked across the table with all the interest he could muster. “What?” he said.
“Quite simple. You put a sheet of paper in the typewriter and you type the word ‘The.’ The human mind abhors a vacuum. It is incapable of leaving the sentence unfinished. You will find yourself typing something to complete the sentence almost immediately.”
“Yes, dear fellow,” said Benchley, “but what about the sentence that follows it? And the next after that? And the next and the next?”
The other one—Woollcott or Broun, or maybe it was George S. Kaufman—spoke up then. “Pablo Picasso says that all art is recovery from the first line. He was talking about drawing, of course, but I believe that’s true of writing as well. Once you have that first sentence on the page, the rest will follow.”
Benchley had already written quite a bit about his ability to procrastinate—that only the pressure of a deadline inspired true creativity—but in this group of trusted colleagues, he could admit that sometimes writing was difficult. Not the typing itself, but getting the right words in the right order. Others agreed. “There’s an elegance that we aspire to achieve, but the limitations of our own selves remains our greatest challenge.”
Benchley put his martini glass down. It was already empty anyway. “The . . .” he said. “The . . .” And then, “The the the the the.” He nodded. “Yes. The . . .” And then he leapt up from his chair. “It’s an admirable idea. I shall now proceed to test it.” And he staggered off in search of his cabin.
The others went back to discussing murder, now arguing whether Jack Warner or Louis B. Mayer might be a better victim. There would be no shortage of suspects or motives. I did catch one line in passing. “No, not Walt Disney. If he doesn’t like an actor, he tears him up.”