Authors: Paul Cain
On August 18, 1939, he married a twenty-year-old “cigarette girl” from Nebraska named Virginia Maxine Glau, who changed her moniker, at her husband’s suggestion, to Mechel Ruric. (Although Bowman gives her name as Mushel, the
L. A. Times
and the 1940 Census record it as Mechel.) As Bowman describes it, Mechel and Sims met cute at her place of work: “One night, he and the notorious Prince Romanoff wobbled into the new nightclub, the Mocambo. Romanoff wobbled because he was nipped, and Ruric wobbled because he was nipped and his leg was in a cast.”
The impostor Ruric palling around with the impostor Romanoff? All the makings of a royal Russian farce.
The Rurics’ honeymoon period came to a screeching halt seven months later, in March 1940, with Mechel’s flight from the third-story balcony of the couple’s home at 1412 N. Kingsley Drive, after what must have been a hell of a quarrel. She survived and stuck with her husband (for the most part) until 1943. Mechel furnished Bowman with a bleak sketch of a man losing his grip: “On most nights Ruric drove home from the studio blind drunk, miraculously navigating the curving driveway without steering off the cliff. He then stumbled up to the porch, crashed through the front door, and passed out in the hallway.”
When Mechel finally left him, Sims took a room at the Chateau Marmont (8221 Sunset Blvd.), where he befriended an unlikely fellow resident, Sinclair Lewis, who’d been brought out by M-G-M to work on a screenplay with Dore Schary. Lewis writes about Sims, who was introduced to him as Peter Ruric, in a series of letters to his mistress, Marcella Powers. His letter of July 17, 1943, on Marmont stationary, gives us another glimmer of Sims’s mythic self, and of its power to impress:
My great pal here a new man whom you would like as much as you do Hal Smith (with less safety from propositioning, however)—Peter Ruric, to whom I was introduced by [Clifton] Kip Fadiman but who proved to be an MGM writer with a cell just a few doors from mine. He is in the Elliott [sic] Paul tradition, with a touch of Peter Godfrey (no, haven’t seen him yet) and a dash of Francois Villon. For years he has hewed out a movie script, then escaped to Paris—China—Carmel—Buenos Ayres, to write an exquisite but unsaleable story, and, casually along the way, to marry or just amiably live with and just as casually to leave some lovely girl—I have only his genteel and unpretentious word for it, however, that they were lovely.
Elliot Paul is indeed an awfully astute comparison. Born in 1891—just over a decade before Sims—Paul was an experimental novelist in the early ’20s, an émigré in Gertrude Stein’s Parisian circle and a co-editor of
in the middle of that decade, a “missing person” on a Spanish isle in the early ’30s, and a Hollywood screenwriter in the ’40s. Snatches of his biography correspond so perfectly to the facts and fictions of Sims’s own story that one is justified in asking whether the latter modeled himself on the former. Elliot Paul’s name even forms a Venn diagram with Paul Cain’s, and the titles of his first three novels—
(1924)—sound like prequels to
. The situation, of course, is more complicated; Elliot Paul may not have served as a direct role model, but he did represent the society to which Sims had always wished to belong. Ironically, while Sims continued to place stock in spurious avant-garde credentials, Paul was turning to crime fiction. His
The Mysterious Mickey Finn: Or, Murder at the Café du Dôme
(1939) inaugurated a series of parodic detective novels starring Homer Evans, an American expatriate in Paris. In more ways than one, Sims and the smart set were ships in the night.
On July 25, Lewis describes a night in the life of Hollywood “players”: “last evening, going again to PR [Players Restaurant] with Peter Ruric and a couple of gals (each of whom was preposterously more beautiful, intelligent, and adorable than any NY girl, such as this Rosemary Povah).” But by August 10, Lewis had tired of the Ruric mystique: “Dinner last night, the only one attempted in my tiny dining-room where houseman here serves [me] breakfasts: Cedric [Hardwicke], who was charming as ever, Alex Knox (Jason) who was fair, Peter Ruric who was dreary …” It appears that many in Hollywood were beginning to feel the same way.
Cain, for his part, had a small resurgence. In 1944 Sims took a trip to New York, renting an apartment at 3 E 33rd Street and meeting with Shaw. After his return to Hollywood, Sims’s erstwhile mentor helped resuscitate his nose-diving protégé’s career, including “Red 71” in
The Hard-Boiled Omnibus
(1946). Shaw’s correspondence with Sims, who was living in a two-bedroom home at 2372 Loma Vista Place, involved more obfuscation and outright malarkey. Meanwhile, the Shaw Press in Hollywood (a subsidiary of Saint Enterprises) reprinted
in 1944, followed by Sims’s own compilation of his finest
(1946). Avon would keep both volumes in print into the ’50s.
By that time, Ruric was entirely on the outs with the studios. His last screenplay had been a collaborative adaptation of two Maupassant stories,
(1944), and in 1948 he received a credit for the appropriately named
Alias a Gentleman
, which was based on a story he had sold to M-G-M in 1941. As Myers and Collins disclose, 1948 also saw Ruric writing two episodes for the radio program
Cavalcade of America
, “Incident at Niagara” (September 27, 1948) and “Home to the Heritage” (October 11, 1948). They quote radio historian Martin Grams: “It is interesting to note that he co-wrote the scripts with Virginia Radcliffe, who herself was a free-lance writer and wrote numerous scripts for
This partnership is interesting indeed, and wasn’t limited to the airwaves. Sims and Radcliffe, who was born in Chicago in 1914, were married sometime in 1945 or ’46, and their union lasted until the end of the decade. Radcliffe, the second Virginia in Sims’s life, had previously been married to the prolific bit-player and sometime writer George M. Lynn; after divorcing Sims, she’d go on to marry William Hurst, becoming an outspoken conservationist and penning
The Caribbean Heritage
, an illustrated history of the islands, which was published shortly after her death in 1976.
Sometime during their marriage the couple lived in New York, and it was at this point that Sims’s old acquaintance from the Chateau Marmont, Sinclair Lewis, reappeared in his life. Lewis’s biographer Mark Schorer writes:
[Lewis] was spending as many hours as she would give him with Miss Powers, but there were empty stretches when he turned to people whom he hardly knew—the young Hollywood script-writer Peter Ruric, for example, who was now writing a novel in New York, and whom Lewis invited to his apartment with his fiancée, and to whom he said that he could not work in New York, that he was returning as soon as possible to his home ground. One afternoon he had this couple to a cocktail party with some other young people, including Miss Powers, and presently he sent the whole party out to dinner, promising to join them later. He made reservations for them at an 86th Street Brauhaus, to which they proceeded, and where they dined, danced and waited for him; but he never came. His guests spoke of him with faint scorn, a hopeless case, and Miss Powers, although defensive of him, despaired, too.
Lewis himself had grown dreary. Schorer seems to have learned of this meeting partly from Miss Powers, and partly from Virginia Radcliffe herself, whom he thanks in his acknowledgments.
Records from the U.S. Copyright Office also show that Sims had written plays as Ruric that were never published, registering
Memory of Man, a Play. In Three Acts
in 1947, and
Count Bruga, a Morality Play in Three Acts
The latter was based on Ben Hecht’s 1926 novel, a satire of Greenwich Village bohemia and its archetypal
, Maxwell Bodenheim.
* * *
In 1949, Marcel Duhamel, the legendary editor of Gallimard’s “Série noire,” added a French translation of
to his catalog. Inclusion in this prestigious series—a favorite among French intellectuals—encouraged Sims. By this time, it must have been clear to him that the Paul Cain stories stood the best chance of gaining him entry into the world of the European avant-garde, to which he had long claimed allegiance. After all, even Gertrude Stein had lent the hard-boiled crime novel her imprimatur in
(1937): “I never try to guess who has done the crime and if I did I would be sure to guess wrong but I liked somebody being dead and how it moves along and Dashiell Hammett was all that and more.”
A year earlier, in her lecture “What Are Master-pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them” (1936), Stein had mused on the detective story’s peculiar merits: “It is very curious but the detective story which is you might say
the only really modern novel form that has come into existence gets rid of human nature by having the man dead to begin with.
Stein valued style and pace, and Hammett had certainly provided, but it was Cain who would have best met her needs; no one in the hard-boiled school had so fearlessly elevated style and pace over moral substance and “human nature.” Indeed, no crime novel was more modernistic in a Steinian sense than
, and Duhamel had given its author recognition when he needed it most.
According to his memoir,
Raconte pas ta vie
(1972), Duhamel had the dubious honor of meeting Sims in France around that time. The man he encountered was a physically decrepit, unbearably needy specimen, who was “unable to take a single step by himself”—a limp “octopus,” a “vampire” that would exceed Polanski’s imagination.
Duhamel’s story confirms the notion that Sims had bottomed out, and was now betting on Paul Cain:
It was Hollywood that had done him in. A renowned screenwriter, a darling at “parties,” disgusted with work that was unworthy of him, he ended up seeking inspiration in alcohol. This was followed by emotional setbacks, two divorces, three detoxification cures, and a course of psychoanalysis; he came to Europe looking for some kind of salvation, after having tried everything else. “And,” he said, “you are my last hope.”
Duhamel couldn’t stand him. Using the advance for a French translation of
, the editor sent Sims packing for Spain. Life in Alicante and on Mallorca seems to have worked miracles for Sims’s health; it’s hard to believe that his whimsical article on Spanish cooking for
magazine, “Viva la Castañetas: A Spanish [Mostly Mallorquin] Letter” (June 1951), could have been written by the same “jellyfish” that Duhamel had seen off at the train station. Upon receiving word of Sims’s newfound
joie de vivre
, and another marriage, it took Duhamel “some time to recover from the shock.”
Peggy Gregson had recently graduated from the University of North Carolina and was taking a grand tour of Europe with her girlfriend, Jeanne Summers. She, Jeanne, and Jeanne’s mother met the man they knew as Peter Ruric at a Mallorcan restaurant in 1955. It was Jeanne’s mother, roughly Sims’s contemporary, who struck up the conversation, but Sims had his eye on Peggy. Although he was thirty years her senior, and a year older than her own father, the bohemian writer swept the girl off her feet. She briefly returned to her family home in Varina, Virginia, but she didn’t stay away long, soon heading back to Spain.
Peggy would become Cain’s third wife. In Catholic Spain, three was two too many. The couple tied the knot in Tripoli, Libya, where they spent a month in 1956 in order to established residence.
They eventually set sail for California on a freighter from Italy, travelling through the Panama Canal and points south for “forty days and forty nights,” as Peggy recalls. They settled in South Laguna and had two sons: Peter Craig in 1956 and Michael Sean in 1958. According to Peggy, Sims, now in his fifties, wasn’t hitting the bottle any more than was usual for the period. She describes a happy and charmed life, although she admits his old Hollywood friends may have wondered what he was doing “with that little girl.” He was a kind, loving man—a snazzy dresser and a wonderful cook—but simply couldn’t provide for his family. He refused to abandon his identity as a writer, even when the writing opportunities had dried up for good. Peggy sensed that his old friends weren’t as eager to see him as he was to see them. He didn’t seem to be writing much anyhow. But pumping gas wasn’t an option, nor was letting Peggy work.
When Peter Craig was ten months old, the family travelled cross-country in Sims’s Thunderbird, paying a visit to the Gregsons in Virginia. The dashing author wowed Peggy’s friends, but unnerved her parents. In December 1958, a few months after Michael Sean’s birth, the family went east again. Sims first connected with his friend Jim Lowry in Washington, D.C., and then took off for Cuba. Peggy and the kids settled with her parents in Virginia.
* * *
Sims had tried to consolidate his personae as early as the mid-’40s, when he’d composed a bio for Shaw’s
that began, “Paul Cain is Peter Ruric, wrote his first crime novel in the early thirties on a bet.” Shaw did not to use it (although a smaller “Peter Ruric” did appear in parentheses below “Paul Cain”). Sims had also swapped “Peter Ruric” for “Paul Cain” on the tear sheets of the stories in
, which now sit in the Joseph Shaw papers at UCLA’s Young Research Library. The publishers kept “Paul Cain.”
On top of all his other woes—both mental and material—this diffusion of identity must have been exhausting. Nowhere is that exhaustion more evident than in the letters and postcards that Sims sent Peggy and his sons in the late ’50s and early ’60s, care of her family and friends in Virginia. He was no longer able to control or keep up the appearances that were so important to him. Bowman secured some of these letters from Peggy in the 1980s, and copies now sit in the E. R. Hagemann papers at UCLA’s Young Research Library.