Beverly Baxter's STRANGE STREET
Pre-War Cobalt. Where Baxter got his start — selling pianos.
This is the second installment of the reminiscences of the Toronto boy who became editor o) the London Daily Express, and whose story of his contacts with some of the most outstanding personalities in the Empire makes colorful "copy." On leaving school, Beverley Baxter secured and lost several jobs as office boy, and then went to the Nordheimer Piano and Music Company. He swept floors, wrapped parcels and did office work at a salary of $3 a week. Then he became personal assistant to Albert Nordheimer at $10 a week.
THREE YEARS went by, when Mr. Nordheimer confronted me once more.
“It is one thing to swim when there is a rope attached to you,” he said. “It is another matter to swim completely alone. You must move on. I want you to go out on the road and sell pianos. Selling is the greatest training in the world, and you will learn more about yourself and people in a year than you would in a lifetime by staying inside. Now where do you want to go?”
The prospect disturbed me, but I tried not to show it.
“I think I could sell pianos in Cobalt.”
“Well, there’s a mining rush on there, and where money comes quickly it goes quickly. I would like to catch some of it going.”
It was the dead of winter and my mother, always the inspiring partner of my adventures, purchased underclothing for me of a thickness previously only known to explorers. All that she knew about Cobalt was that it was due north some 500 miles and that winter was winter in that latitude.
My only “prospect” in Cobalt was a Mrs. Schultz, apparently a grocer, who had written to us for a catalogue. Armed with her letter, I took the train.
The Cobalt House was a large wooden hotel that served
as first-class accommodation. I was given half a cubicle in which there were two tiny iron beds. The noise in the hotel was terrific. The rush was on and the adventurers of a continent were there—full-bearded, hard-eyed fellows who had struck it lucky and were celebrating in laughter, drink and blasphemy. The others were there, too—the failures. They had gambled and lost—not like the Monte Carlo pygmies with counters on a green table, but with hunger and heartache and defeat. There were capitalists as well, preparing the bait for the public, and confidence men content with quicker profits, and the harlots were beginning to arrive. All mining rushes are the same.
Dazed by the roughness of it, I was hopelessly lonely and depressed. I sat all day in a leather chair looking at the snow and listening to the clamor at the bar. I spoke to no one and no one spoke to me. The interminable day at last came to an end and I went to bed. To my relief, the other occupant was not there and I was soon asleep. About midnight my fellow lodger burst into the cubicle, drunkenly brandishing a bottle of whisky and a bottle of olives. His eyes were bloodshot and his beard was full of crumbs. Stretching himself on the bed and ignoring my presence, he alternatively drank from the one bottle and swallowed olives from the other while he talked to himself.
At last sleep claimed him. The bottles dropped to the floor and his snores were like nothing animal or human.
Early in the day I took up my watch in the hotel rotunda.
A fresh snowfall had eliminated footmarks so that the camp seemed newly groomed. But nothing could lift me from the depression into which I had sunk. I decided to write to Mr. Nordheimer and resign. I would not even try to sell a piano, and I dreaded that someone might discover the nature of my occupation.
The long day wore on, and after dinner I resumed my last sentry go before retiring to bed. A young fellow, little older than myself, came up to me.
“How are you getting on?” he said.
My heart jumped but I managed to answer, “All right.”
“What are you selling?” he asked.
My cheeks went scarlet. I told him I had come to see the country.
“I am selling Christmas cards,” he said with a grin. “You know—working my way through Varsity. What are you selling?”
“You haven’t tried very hard, have you?”
I shook my head.
“Any names to see?”
I told him about Mrs. Schultz who had a grocery shop but at no particular address.
“Come on; we’ll find her,” he said. “What’s your name? Mine is Albright.”
Like King Wenceslaus and his page, we went out into the snowy night. The exuberant humanity of my new friend had warmed my veins and it was good to talk again.
Going past an improvised meat shop, he pulled me in and shouted to the Greek proprietor to know if he was Mr. Schultz, and if not, where could Mrs. Schultz be found.
The Greek said he was not Mr. Schultz and knew not Mrs. Schultz.
“Do you want a piano?” asked Albright, while I made for the door. “You need a piano.”
“I doan’ play no piano,” said the Greek.
“Of course not,” said my friend. “How could you when you haven’t got one? How much could you pay for a piano worth four hundred dollars?”
“T’ree hundred an’ fifty,” said the Greek.
“That’s settled. Show him your catalogue, Baxter, and you, Pedro, show me your money.”
The transaction was duly completed to the bewilderment of the Greek and myself, and we prepared to depart with $350 in cash in my pockets.
After this Marx Brothers episode, which must have represented the swiftest sale in the history of the music trade, we pursued our search for Mrs. Schultz. In the process we sold three more pianos, or rather Albright did.
During the next ten days I sold some fifteen instruments, Albright coming with me whenever he could get away. We never found Mrs. Schultz, but our bag was a record one among those from whom we enquired her whereabouts. His cheerfulness and courage were unbounded, and soon my morale was so restored that I shook my drunken roommate by the shoulder and told him to stop snoring. Once at a hockey game my feet were frozen, and the faithful Albright rubbed them with snow and saved me days of pain.
I said good-by to him and never saw him again. I was too young to be grateful and he was too young to have expected any expressions of gratitude.
How to Get Things Done
■\yTR. NORDHEIMER received me with modified rap'*“*■*■ ture. He pointed out that I had given credit to two or three very doubtful people who might default or run away with the pianos—prognostications which proved only too well foundedbut I had no ear for gloomy comments. I wanted praise; I wanted recognition. That night I sat in our study with my father and gave him my advice on how the wallpaper business should be run. He smoked a benevolent pipe and spared me.
Other trips followed, and soon I was given control of all the territory north of Toronto. I quickly realized that an essential part of the art of success was to get other men to do as much of the work as possible, so I engaged various
local agents who administered the anaesthetic while I came along and performed the operation. Not all were successful, but a large number survived.
When selling to farmers we used to time our arrival for sunset, when the farmer would shortly be leaving his plow for his evening meal. We would walk beside his furrow engaging him in genial conversation until the air would suddenly be punctured by a hand bell and the universal cry: “Pa! Supper's waiting.”
Almost invariably the farmer, true to his traditional hospitality, would ask us to join him for the meal. In those days “a city fellow” was still something of an event, and so in the kitchen I would take my place with the farmer, his wife, the two daughters—there were always two— the sullen son and the hired man, and wade into the repast of cold beef, hot potatoes, pickles, apple pie and tea, always faithfully preceded by thanks to the Almighty.
There was no talk of pianos, but perhaps after supper they would take me to that dark unaired room called the parlor, decorated by chromos and photographs of relatives in stiff collars and flounced dresses. It was a room of gloom reserved for weddings and funerals, with an organ against the wall.
So to the sale of the piano while each family revealed its secret—who was the head, whether the ruling passion was parsimony or ostentation, whether parental pride counted, and if the girls were allies or not. Each sale was a new study in tactics. And if at times the salesman’s pressure was severe, think of the joy when the new piano arrived and the wheezy organ had retired for ever.
They were good people and I sold them good pianos, and in the process I learned much about the most interesting thing in the world—human nature.
And all this while the world was speeding up as if it could not reach quickly enough the precipice that wa
waiting at the end of the path. Electric trams had succeeded the horse-drawn ones, the bicycle had come to bark our shins on the rough roads of progress, telephones had linked up far apart people who had nothing to say to each other, motor cars had appeared to terrorize the horses and to rob us of the use of our legs, a little English doctor named Crippen was journeying to Canada when a message travelled through the air to his ship and from that moment his collar became a noose, but history had been made.
The Calm Before the Storm
MILLIONAIRES were multiplying
in America, and already it could be seen that the U.S.A. would never know depression again. Toronto had become a vast city with miles of such beautiful homes that no one to this day can account for the incomes necessary to support them. The curse of Scotland in the form of golf had reached us, and wonderful clubs sprang up to lure the businessman from his task.
Unknown to me or to any of my generation a young boy named Prinsips was stealing out at night in the little town of Serajevo in Servia and listening in secret cellars to the older men denouncing their tyrants, the Austrians. In the early hours of the morning he would retrace his steps and climb back through the window to his bed.
Then a very significant thing happened. While Albert Nordheimer directed the activities of our business, the president of it was his uncle, Samuel Nordheimer, a man of some eighty years of age with the vitality of a bull and the personality of a Chaliapin. He was the German Consul and smoked vile cigars incessantly. On the Kaiser’s birthday we always flew the German eagles, and there used to be an intermittent stream of German emigrants to the office who were dealt with by a very old secretary named Seigmund Weichert.
It was Samuel Nordheimer’s yearly habit to visit Europe
and to make a pilgrimage to his family’s old home in Hamburg. In 1914 he went earlier than usual and returned in May. I never learned whether he was acting on his own deductions or whether Berlin had told him that the European bubble was about to burst, but on landing in Montreal he promptly arranged to sell out our business there to our largest competitor.
Albert Nordheimer was furious, and the two of them entered into a series of wrangles that shook not only the staff but the building itself. Samuel’s office was in the front and Albert's office at the back, and the vast distance between became a no-man’s land where the opposing forces ebbed and flowed in a warfare of words that drove customers out of the shop in terror.
Old Samuel’s carriage used to call for him every night at six. Once when Albert had gone home he talked to me until seven o’clock, with the result that when we went to leave by the front door, as was his custom, it was locked. Accordingly he went by the back, and on coming round the comer was knocked down by a motor car and his hip was broken.
They took him to his beautiful home on the hill, where, to the astonishment of the doctors, his hip began to heal.
Unfortunately the details of the Montreal sale had not been completed, and I was used as an intermediary between the two partners.
The life of a sparring partner is never any fun. He gets the blows without the glory. Each saw in me the personality of the other, and at my defenseless chin were hurled the rights and lefts of mutual defiance. When I first went to see Samuel I was somewhat awed by a sign over his bed, “God Bless Our Happy Home,” hanging at such an angle that it seemed a hatchet might have been hurled at it.
After many futile discussions Samuel announced his intention of getting up and going to the office to have it out with his nephew. The doctors said it would kill him. A grin of sardonic sweetness came over that marvellous German face. He went to the office and completed the details of the sale, after a struggle of such intensity that Albert was left limp and breathless and old Samuel was as full of life as a stallion smelling the cool winds of spring.
After that he went home and dutifully did what the doctors said he would do. Thus did Albert become the sole ruler, but of a kingdom shorn of its Eastern provinces.
Continued on page 46
Continued from page 19—Starts on page 18
Then came the war. Beverley Baxter joined the army. On leaves he would drop into the Nordheimer store and help sell a piano.
"D UT NORDHEIMER’S was not a happy
spot. The spy mania had gripped Toronto; and a community full of GermanCanadians renamed itself Kitchener—which it remains today.
Old Seigmund Weichert, whose gentleness went far beyond nationalism, was interned in a Northern camp as a precaution. Not wishing to be a bother to anyone, he died without any fuss.
Siegfried Hertz was carefully watched, and I must admit that his declaration to me that Wagner was the greatest composer who ever lived roused deep suspicions in my own breast. August Suyler, the manager of the sheet music department, worked himself to a skeleton so as to have no time to think.
As for Victor Nordheimer, Albert’s son, he had been given command of Stanley Barracks, where the Dragoons were stationed, but was not allowed to go overseas. Again and again he protested as his friends left with their reinforcement drafts. He tried to explain that soldiering was his profession, that his whole life had been a rehearsal for war, and now that war had come he wanted to practise what he had learned.
Eventually they reduced him to the rank of lieutenant, at his own suggestion, and sent him over. I ran across him at Corps Headquarters, where his job was to see that everyone saluted smartly. He was still kept from the front.
Sam Hughes made Sir Max Aitken an honorary colonel, appointed him official eyewitness to the Canadian Forces in the field, and placed him in charge of Canadian War records. The future Beaverbrook did his job so thoroughly that it seemed as if the whole war was being fought by the Canadians. Punch ventured a mild protest when it published a cartoon of Mr. Punch saying to a returned British Tommy, “Why is it the world never hears of you?” And the Tommy answering, “Because we’re only in the casualty lists.”
I Meet Lord Beaverbrook
Baxter went overseas to England and to France. On active service, he was smitten with pneumonia. Past the crisis, the medical officer suggested a fortnight in the South of France, then “back to your unit.” Toa shrapnel-riddled man in the next cot, the doctor said: “ You're for Blighty."
Next day the Blighty card was hung round Baxter's neck and the South of France card round the neck of the wounded man. Protests against the mix-up brought angry instructions to obey orders. Baxter went to Blighty, unwillingly labelled “Dangerous Case.”
On leave in Scotland, he met Charles Chambers, of Chambers's Journal, who encouraged him to write. Baxter sold a number of stories to that publication. Back to London, in a theatre he learned of the death of Victor Nordheimer, killed in a counter-attack.
Following the Armistice, Baxter went with the Canadian War Records Office, later becoming assistant to Captain Holt White of the Canadian Publicity Department.
IORD BEAVERBROOK was a constant J topic of conversation in all circles, and the opinions about him varied as much as the personalities who discussed him. On the whole, he seemed to me to represent Big Business in the Transatlantic sense, with a touch of arrogance, a touch of genius, a touch of prudishness and more than a touch of political shrewdness. Obviously a man to meet.
I sent him a copy of Chambers's Journal with my story of “Mr. Craighouse.” His Lordship’s secretary wrote a letter of thanks
and said His lordship would read it. I replied that I would like to meet him personally. There was no further response.
Whenever I encountered any friends of Beaverbrook’s I urged them to press my claims for a meeting. They said they would.
Returning to my hotel one night, there was a message from Lord Beaverbrook asking me to call next morning at the Hyde Park Hotel. It was like that exhilarating moment in billiards when the balls begin to run for a player.
Beaverbrook was shaving in his bathroom, but had a chair put in for me.
“Well,” he said. “What do you want to see me about?”
“But you sent for me.”
He turned his soap-covered face full at me and his eyes, which had been twinkling a moment before, steadied.
“Listen to me,” he said. “You have been trj'ing to get to see me for three months. You began by sending me your story—”
“Did you read it?”
“Certainly. It could have been better. Then you sent messages by all my friends. Need I go on?”
I grinned and shook my head.
“Very well. Since it was you who wanted to see me, I repeat—what do you want?” “As a matter of fact,” I said, “I don’t want anything. You are a man whose name is on everybody’s lips, and I wished to see what you were like.”
He bowed elaborately and then resumed his shaving. Although he had just emerged from a serious illness and his frail body seemed overslight for his massive head, he gave a definite impression of unbridled vitality. His voice was vital and arresting, and his large mouth was both sensual and kindly. Altogether, a vivid and warming personality.
“What university did you go to in Canada?” The question came from a face pursed up to assist in shaving the chin. “The Nordheimer Piano Company.” “Good. But not so good as the insurance business. You learn more selling insurance, like I did, than selling pianos.”
A Man of Action
I SHOOK my head. “Insurance is easy.
You can work on the powerful emotion of fear. People need insurance. Nobody ever needs a piano, and those who want one cannot afford it.”
He immersed his face in the basin and then wiped it vigorously with a towel.
“Do you want a job?”
“I’ll give you a job on the Daily Express.” “As what?”
“As a leader writer. They call it editorial writer in Canada.”
I thanked him, but explained that it was
my intention to go home to Canada and write novels. He brandished his arms eloquently and fastened me with his Ancient Mariner eye.
“Hundreds of years ago,” he said, “the hairy Britons crept wonderingly down to the shore and watched the wind fill the sails of the mighty Roman galleons as they set out for Imperial Rome. I love Canada more than any other country, but we Canadians are still the hairy Britons and London is Imperial .Rome. You will have to come to London.”
He shouted for a secretary.
“Get me Bonar Law on the telephone, and then ask Arnold Bennett if he will lunch with me here at one o’clock.”
My knees trembled. These men were gods and here was a man who spoke of them as mere mortals. When he was dressed the real melodrama began. Secretaries darted in and out like minnows in a torrent. Three telephones sprang into life and never paused a moment for breath. In the centre of it all, creating the energy which he exhausted, was this curious, buoyant, fascinating figure; chuckling, roaring, winking, frowning, talking while he signed letters, issuing instructions, gossiping like a spinster, buying, selling, interviewing his interviewers, w'heedling terrifying, and enjoying himself immensely.
It w'as nearly noon w'hen I left him.
“Show' Mr. Baxter out!” he bellow'ed. “Come and see me again, Baxter. Good-by to you.”
A secretary blew' in.
“Will you speak to Mr. Otto Kahn, sir?” “Certainly, certainly. Ask him to lunch. Find out what he is doing for the w'eek-end.” He took my arm and ushered me into the corridor.
“You should come into journalism," he said. “It is a great career for a man who can rise to it.”
We shook hands. “No, thanks,” I said. “I am going to be a novelist.”
He turned about abruptly.
“Good-by to you.” There was an air of finality in the farewell.
A fortnight later the Olympic sailed for Canada with a full cargo of returning soldiers, and once more I found myself on the grand old ship. At the last moment there w'as an unexpected addition to our company. Lord Beaverbrook, modestly travelling with only two secretaries, one valet and no telephone, had come on board.
He was chairman of the ship’s concert, at which function I rendered a solo. When I had finished to a smattering of applause that nearly reached the dimensions of an encore, the chairman sent me a note:
“My dear Baxter: I have heard you sing. More than ever, I advise you to take up journalism. Yours, B.” To be Continued