I’d like to say that Cy Ruthenburg’s rich tale of Joseph Derr’s rake’s progress, which hinged, in part, on the unexpected but not unwelcome debut of Oklahoma oilfield gambler Titanic Thomas in Evansville society, wafted on a fuzzy atmosphere of scotch above a spreading Ohio River sunset just over his shoulder, but since Cy’s club had no actual windows that would be fabrication, and we don’t do that in journalism.
The 1950s were Joe Derr’s time. Sure the entire world was on the brink of nuclear annihilation, but if you were in the plastics business and were a close personal friend of The McDonnell Douglas Company and other military contractors who built weapons and consumed plastic like there was no tomorrow, because there might not be, these were fat times. Nothing but blue skies – and if a few mushroom clouds chanced to drift by, well, that was the cost of doing business and all the more reason to pack in a little extra living. Alas, as the Irish are fond of saying, the proprieties must be observed, and Joe, as a homosexual, needed a cover story to continue to move in the respectable circles that fed his business. He wasn’t getting any younger and people were beginning to talk. He needed a wife. He needed Joan.
And thanks to Alvin Clarence “Titanic” Thomas he found her. Titanic, whose tendency to bet the house was the source of his sobriquet, was the devil in checked plus-fours on the golf courses of Evansville, perhaps even on the one that surrounded the club where Cy Ruthenburg was spinning his yarn and waiters glided about like silent chess pieces.
Cy told me that Titanic would challenge rubes to nine holes of golf for $1,000 per hole, lose and win just enough to alternately whet the mark’s greed and his need to get back to scratch, and then offer to play the next nine holes for $2,000 per … left-handed. And then he’d win every hole. Remunerative, sure, but hardly sporting. Feelings occasionally were bruised.
But Titanic’s true trademark was a feat rendered superfluous by today’s era of magnetic swipe cards.
“He was hiding in a hotel room for many days” – very likely gone to ground three steps ahead of a fleeced duffer – “and to kill the boredom he tried throwing his skeleton key across the room into the lock,” Cy said. “Well, he perfected the thing. He would bet you that he could throw that key into the lock ten times in a row. And he collected.”
There was one adversary Titanic could not overcome, however: The Raney family. First he married Yvette Raney and when he came up snake eyes with her he trained his considerable aim to bear on her sister JoAnn, although Cy implied that Titanic’s extrication from Yvette’s brief embrace was very likely a matter of sibling larceny. Titanic was up and then he was down. Outraged golfers haunted his dreams. The mob also did not like the cut of his jib. He had a lot of time to practice his aerial locksmithery. And, while he was surely no dummy, professional obligations required him to assume “the mannerisms and appearance of a country jerk – that was part of the come-on,” Cy explained.
JoAnn’s ardor for her new groom quickly cooled. And really, what chance for love did one have with a husband who might be found, or not found, hunkered down in a hotel suite arcing a skeleton key across a room into a little hole in the door? Titanic offered fast odds, but Joe Derr, freshly-fabricated plastics magnate, was steady money. Titanic gradually induced in her a bout of the old ennui and when Joe crossed her scope she squeezed her trigger and quickly changed her brand to the more demure “Joan.” (Had she stayed with Titanic, I thought, she might have become known as Joan of Arc.) But instead she attended finishing school, such as it was, in Evansville.
“She was a good golfer and she took French lessons and then she learned French very well and she became critical of everyone else,” Cy sighed. Joe, who was wise with money but very often could not find his socks, began to grate on Joan. God forbid he should misplace his keys, but very often God did not forbid and Joan-nee-JoAnn found herself standing in the rain outside a perfectly good house harboring a fully stocked bar while her husband rummaged helplessly through his pockets. After a few years, her nagging turned physical – and, it turned out, she had learned a thing or two about doors from dear Titanic, but not the right things.
Hour gave way to hour as Cy revelated in his red refuge, welcome to none but men, filling rapidly with cigar smoke and the sound of ice cubes clicking into tumblers. I dared not look at my watch for fear of breaking the spell – or revealing it was on off-brand Timex knockoff; I had already burned up whatever meager style points I had with my red paisley-on-blue-stripes ensemble — but I guessed we were getting into early evening. Cy had been knocking back glasses of scotch for hours. When the waiter approached me with a crystal canister of the stuff, I waved him off with a silent gesture, which I imagined he appreciated.
My eyes followed as Cy blew a lazy column of blue smoke ceilingward (it was red) and I asked him if he could provide more illumination on the murky matrimony of Joe and JoAnn (hmmm … I made a note; might there be a Freudian angle here? Had Narcissus married himself?).
Well, I thought, that’s a question for the local psychology professor when I get home. One thing was clear: Joe Derr had definitely not married Mohandas Karmchand Gandhi. “One time to escape her Joe locked himself in his den and she got an axe and started tearing into the door with it.” Say what you will but if Joan had ever disparaged Titanic as good for nothing this episode would be exhibit A for his defense. “Another time she pulled a gun on Joe and I don’t know how he got it away from her.”
Joan-JoAnn Raney-Thomas-Derr was, at this very moment, quietly nursing her wounds in a Texas nursing home but her son Ty Thomas, issue of Titanic, would later tell me that he held his mercurial stepdaddy in something less than high esteem, and he did so in the gentle manner for which Texans are so justly lauded: “Joe was a pretty sorry son of a bitch.”
Everything was coming apart at the seams. The Sixties had been a blur. The Seventies were approaching. Men had stopped wearing ties on Saturday night and the old gang was beginning to fray. For instance, Ray Ryan, Titanic Thomas’s fellow practitioner of the dark arts of chance, the well-met fellow who had won 250 large from oilman and American Football League founder H.L. Hunt playing gin rummy on a transatlantic cruise, and an acknowledged pater familias of Palm Springs, California, had cruelly departed the scene, leaving only heartache, mystery and markers behind. It seems that Ray had consternated some associates in the Midwestern division of La Cosa Nostra and to send a stern message these very same gentlemen blew up Ray’s car. Unfortunately, Ray was in it at the time.
“Some of his relationships were not the best,” Cy offered, sagely.
Titanic, meanwhile, having fully strip-mined the rich vein of Raney women, fell into destitution and died. Cy’s hand swept blithely upward (and somewhere a waiter jumped). Who can guess at the designs of fate, the vicissitudes of time and tide? What might have precipitated the sinking of Titanic? Cy, eschewing palaver, declaimed, “He lost his aim, I guess.”
Well, the hour glass empties and then it is turned and fills again. And when it turned in the early 1960s, who came pouring down the chute but Donald Baggett? Because of Joe’s tempestuous but still socially useful marriage to Joan, and because of the moral tone of Evansville, which had blue laws into the 1980s, Don had to stay in the shadows … just as well, since he was an albino. But as the 1970s approached and neckties, marital bonds and social mores loosened, Don began to publicly take his place at Joe’s side.
Finally, our interview had reached its terminus and I rose and prepared to depart this red sea, proffering an arm to Cy, who had listed rather severely to port during the last half hour of this extraordinary memory voyage. But I had mistaken Cy for a front-runner when in fact his forte was the backstretch. This race was not to the swift, nor would bread be served to the wise in the winner’s circle; this was Belmont, not Churchill Downs and there was another quarter-mile to go. Cy had not yet begun to drink. (Old-time editors lamented that a fancy pants liberal arts college education was anathema to the craft of scribery and after those last two sentences who would dare dispute their sagacity?)
“You will excuse me if I don’t see you out, young man,” Cy slurred.
After eight or nine tumblers of scotch, I would have excused him if he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face.
Next: Enter The Albino