In Death in the Fifth Position, dashing P.R. man Peter Sargent is hired by a ballet company on the eve of a major upcoming performance. Handling the press seems to be no problem, but when a rising star in the company is killed during the performance—dropped from thirty feet above the stage, crashing to her death in a perfect fifth position—Sargent has a real case on his hands. As he ingratiates himself with the players behind the scenes (especially one lovely young ballerina), he finds that this seemingly graceful ballet company is performing their most dramatic acts behind the curtain. There are sharp rivalries, sordid affairs, and shady characters. Sargent, though, has no trouble staying on point and proving that the ballerina killer is no match for his keen eye and raffish charm.
About the Author
Gore Vidal (1925–2012) was born at the United States Military Academy at West Point. His first novel, Williwaw, written when he was 19 years old and serving in the army, appeared in the spring of 1946. He wrote 23 novels, five plays, many screenplays, short stories, well over 200 essays, and a memoir.
Hometown:La Rondinaia, a villa in Ravello, Italy; and Los Angeles, California
Date of Birth:October 3, 1925
Place of Birth:West Point, New York
Education:Attended St. Albans. Graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy, 1943. No college.
Read an Excerpt
"You see," said Mr. Washburn. "We've been having trouble."
I nodded. "What sort of trouble?"
He looked vaguely out the window. "Oh, one thing and the other."
"That's not much to go on, is it?" I said gently; it never does to be stern with a client before one is formally engaged.
"Well, there's the matter of these pickets."
I don't know why but the word "picket" at this moment suggested small gnomes hiding in the earth. So I said, "Ah."
"They are coming tonight," he added.
"What time do they usually come?" I asked, getting into the spirit of the thing.
"I don't know. We've never had them before."
Never had them before, I wrote in my notebook, just to be doing something.
"You were very highly recommended to me," said Mr. Washburn, in a tone which was almost accusing; obviously I had given him no cause for confidence.
"I've handled a few big jobs, from time to time," I said quietly, exuding competence.
"I want you for the rest of the season, the New York season. You are to handle all our public relations, except for the routine stuff which this office does automatically: sending out photographs of the dancers and so on. Your job will be to work with the columnists, that kind of thing . . . to see we're not smeared."
"Why do you think you might be smeared?" The psychological moment had come for a direct question.
"The pickets," said Mr. Washburn with a sigh. He was a tall heavy man with a bald pink head which glittered as though it had been waxed; his eyes were gray and shifty: as all honest men's eyes are supposed to be according to those psychologists who maintain that there is nothing quite so dishonest as a level, unwavering gaze.
I finally understood him. "You mean you are going to be picketed?"
"That's what I said."
"Bad labor relations ?"
"You mean the Communists are going to picket you?"
The impresario of the Grand Saint Petersburg Ballet looked at me sadly, as though once again his faith had been unjustified. Then he began at the beginning. "I called you over here this morning because I was told that you were one of the best of the younger public relations men in New York, and I prefer to work with young people. As you mayor may not know, my company is going to premiere an important new ballet tonight. The first major modern ballet we have presented in many years and the choreographer is a man named Jed Wilbur."
"I'm a great admirer of his," I said, just to show that I knew something about ballet. As a matter of fact, it isn't possible to be around the theater and not know of Wilbur. He is the hottest choreographer in town at the moment, the most fashionable . . . not only in ballet but also in musical comedies.
"Wilbur has been accused of being a Communist several times but since he has already been cleared by two boards I have every confidence in him. The United Veterans Committee, however, have not. They wired me yesterday that if we did his new ballet they would picket every performance until it was withdrawn."
"That's bad," I said, frowning, making it sound worse than it was: after all I had a good job at stake. "May I see their telegram?" Mr. Washburn handed it to me and I read:
To Ivan Washburn Director Grand Saint Petersburg Ballet Company Metropolitan Opera House New York City: WE HAVE REASON TO BELIEVE THAT JED WILBUR IS A MEMBER OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY AND THAT COMMA TO PROTECT OUR CHERISHED WAY OF LIFE AND THOSE IDEALS WHICH SO FINELY FORGED A NATION OUT OF THE WILDERNESS COMMA THE SUBVERSIVE WORK OF ARTISTS LIKE WILBUR SHOULD BE BANNED PERIOD SHOULD YOU DISREGARD THIS PLEA TO PROTECT OUR AMERICAN WAY WE WILL BE FORCED TO PICKET EVERY PERFORMANCE OF SAID WILBUR'S WORK PERIOD IN A TRUE DEMOCRACY THERE IS NO PLACE FOR A DIFFERENCE OF OPINION ON GREAT ISSUES CORDIALLY ABNER S. FLEER SECRETARY.
"A poignant composition," I said.
"We've had a bad season so far this year. We're the fifth ballet company to arrive in town this spring and even though we're the original Russian ballet it's not been easy to fill the Met. Wilbur is our ace-in-the-hole. It's his first ballet for this company. It's his first new work in over a year. Everyone is going to be on hand tonight . . . and nothing must go wrong. That will be your job, too, by the way: to publicize the premiere."
"If I'd had a few weeks of preparation I could have got Life to cover the performance," I said with that modesty which characterizes my profession.
Washburn was not impressed. "In any case, I'm told that you've got a good many contacts among the columnists. They're the people who make opinion, for us at least. You've got to convince them that Wilbur is as pure as . . ."
"The driven snow," I finished, master that I am of the worn cliché, "But is he?"
"Is he what?"
"Pure as . . . I mean is he a Communist?"
"How in the name of God should I know? He could be an anarchist for all I care. The only thing I'm interested in is a successful season. Besides, what has politics to do with Eclipse?
"Eclipse is the name of the new ballet. I want you to go over to the Met and watch the dress rehearsal at two thirty. You'll be able to get some idea of the company then . . . meet the cast and so on. Meet Wilbur, too; he's full of ideas on how to handle this . . . too damn many ideas."
"Then I am officially employed?"
"As of this minute . . . for the rest of the season, two weeks altogether. If we're still having trouble by the time we go on tour I'd like you to go with us as far as Chicago . . . if that's agreeable."
"We'll see," I said.
"Fine." Mr. Washburn rose and so did I. "You'll probably want to make some preparations between now and two-thirty. You can use the office next to mine . . . Miss Ruger will show you which one."
"That will be perfect," I said. We shook hands solemnly.
I was halfway out the door when Mr. Washburn said, "I think I should warn you that ballet dancers are very temperamental people. Don't take them too seriously. Their little quarrels are always a bit louder than life." Which, in the light of what happened later, was something of an understatement.
Until my interview with Ivan Washburn I could take ballet or leave it alone and since in earlier days I was busy writing theater reviews for Milton Haddock of the New York Globe, I left it alone: besides, the music critic always handled ballet and what with doing Mr. Haddock's work as well as my own I had very little time for that sort of thing, between eight-thirty and eleven anyway. Mr. Haddock, God knows, is a fine critic and a finer man and it is a fact that his reviews in the Globe were more respected than almost anyone else's; they should have been since I wrote nearly all of them between 1947 and 1949 at which latter date I was separated from the Globe, as we used to say in the army. Not that I am implying Mr. Haddock, who was writing about the theater the year I was born, couldn't do just as well as I did . . . he could, but there is a limit to the amount of work you can accomplish on Scotch whisky, taken without water or ice, directly from the bottle if he was in the privacy of his office or from a discreet prohibition flask if we were at the theater: he on the aisle fifth row from the stage and I just behind him in the sixth row, with instructions to poke the back of his neck if he snored too loud.
In a way, I had a perfect setup; Mr. Haddock was fond of me in a distant fatherly way (he often had a struggle recalling my name) and I was allowed all the pleasure of unedited authorship for he never changed a line of my reviews on those occasions when he read them at all. The absence of public credit never distressed me; after all I was Harvard class of 1946 (three years must be added to my age, however, during which time I served the nation on at least one very far-flung battlefront) and most of my classmates are still struggling along in the lower echelons of advertising firms or working anonymously for Time and Life and worrying about their integrity as liberals in a capitalistic organization. Anyway I knew a good thing when I saw it but after three years of being the real drama critic for the Globe I began to feel my oats and I made the mistake of asking for a raise at the wrong time: a fault in timing which must be ascribed to my extreme youth and natural arrogance, to quote Mr. Haddock quoting the managing editor, and since I had unfortunately phrased my request as an ultimatum I was forced to resign and Mr. Haddock looked very sorry and confused the day I left, saying: "All the best, Jim." My name is Peter Cutler Sargeant II, but what the hell; I shook his hand and told him that everything I knew about writing I had learned from him . . . which pleased the old fool.
For over a year now I have been in public relations, with my own office, consisting of a middle-aged lady and a filing cabinet. The middle-aged lady, Miss Flynn, is my official conscience and she has been very good to me, reminding me that money is not everything and that Jesus is my redeemer. She is a Baptist and stern in the presence of moral weakness. I firmly believe that the main reason she consents to work for me is that I constitute a challenge to her better instincts, to that evangelical spirit which burns secretly but brightly in her bosom. She will save me yet. We have both accepted that fact. But in the meantime she helps me in my work, quite unaware that she is a party to that vast conspiracy to dupe the public in which I and my kind are eternally engaged.
"Miss Flynn, I have been hired."
"The dancers?" She looked at me, her gray lips tight. Women in tights are dancers to her, not ballerinas.
"For two weeks, starting now."
"I am very happy for you, Mr. Sargeant," she said, in the tone of one bidding a friend farewell on the banks of the Styx.
"I'm happy, too," I said. I then gave her a few instructions about my other accounts (a hat company in the Bronx, a television actress and a night school) ; then I left my one-room Madison Avenue office and headed for the Metropolitan Opera House, leaving my conscience behind.
Mr. Washburn met me at the stage door and escorted me past several open dressing rooms to a flight of steps which led down to the vast stage itself. Everything was in great confusion. Small fat women ran back and forth carrying costumes, while dancers in tights stood about practicing difficult variations with the intensely vacuous expressions of weight-lifters or of those restaurant cooks who scramble eggs in front of plate-glass windows. Workmen, carrying parts of scenery, shouted to one another and cursed the dancers who seemed always to be in their way. In the pit the orchestra was making an awful noise warming up, while, beyond, the great red and gold opera house was empty and still . . . a little ominous, I thought, for no reason at all.
"The rehearsal is almost ready to begin," said my employer as we moved out onto the stage, toward a group of dancers in tights and T-shirts, the standard rehearsal costume of both boys and girls, which was very nice I thought, looking at the girls. "I'll introduce you to the principals in a minute," said Mr. Washburn. "If you . . ." But then someone waved to him from the other side of the stage and he walked away, leaving his sentence unfinished.
"Are you the new boy?" asked a female voice behind me.
I turned and saw a very pretty girl standing behind me; she wore black tights and a white T-shirt through which her breasts showed, small and neat. She was combing her dark gold hair back. For some inscrutable reason she had a rubber band in her mouth; it impaired her diction.
"Well, I guess in a way I am," I said.
"You better get your clothes off. I'm Jane Garden."
"My name's Peter Sargeant."
"You better hurry. You've got to learn the whole thing this afternoon." She pulled her hair straight back and then slipped the back hair through the rubber band; it looked like a horse's tail, a very nice horse's tail.
"Shall I take them off right here?"
"Don't be silly. The boys' dressing room is on the second floor."
I then explained to her who I was and she giggled, but not in a squeaky manner: her voice was low and her eyes, I noticed, were a fine arctic blue.
"Do you know anything about ballet?" she asked, glancing anxiously toward the other dancers. They were not ready, however. The orchestra was still warming up. The principals hadn't arrived yet. The noise was deafening.
"Not much," I said. "Are you one of the leads?"
"Nowhere near being a lead. Although they've made me understudy in this ballet."
"Why, to Ella Sutton. She's the star of the ballet . . . I mean of this particular one. Actually she's the second-ranking ballerina . . . after Eglanova."
I knew who Eglanova was. Everyone, I suspect, who has ever heard of ballet knows about Anna Eglanova. I had even read up on her that morning before my interview with Mr. Washburn, just so I wouldn't appear too ignorant. The program notes and the facts, however, did not coincide as I found out soon enough . . . even though the program is approximately correct; she was a star at the same time as Nijinski and she is a genuine Russian dancer from the old Imperial School, but she is fifty-one not thirty-eight and she has been married five times, not once, and she was not the greatest ballerina of the Diaghilev era; as a matter of fact she was considered the least promising of the lot: how were her contemporaries to know that she had joints like ball bearings and a pair of lungs like rubber water wings and that with this equipment she would outlive all her generation, existing finally as a legend whose appearance on a stage was enough to break up a whole audience, causing tears of nostalgia to come to the eyes of characters who never saw a ballet before the last war.