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September 27, 2007

The Saint Comes To America

From A Letter from The Saint, July 26, 1946.

It became increasingly clear to me that America was the Promised Land in which I should have to seek fun and fortune.

It was 1932 before I had enough money all at one time to figure I could pay my passage even on a small steamer and arrive with $25 in my pocket, which the American Consulate declared was the minimum permissible grub steak. So at last I set out on my great adventure.

I had my first sidelight on another America when I filled out the form for the ship's manifest. After a lot of routine items about where you were born and when and why, the questionnaire ended up with "Are you an anarchist? A polygamist? Do you believe in the overthrow of the Government of the United States by force?"

It seemed a little unnecessary to ask whether one was an anarchist, since everybody knew that anarchists could be identified by sight by their untidy whiskers and the round black bombs with spluttering fuses which they always carried behind their backs. As for being a polygamist, it seemed slightly unfair to pick on me when I had read of state visits by quite a large selection of sultans, rajahs, beys, pashas, and effendis, all of them busy polygamizing on their home ground with full religious sanction; while I had also the lingering idea that somebody named Brigham Young was spreading a similar gospel in Utah. The forcible overthrow of the United States Government was not on my schedule at the time, but the question did seem rather foolish, since I could not understand why anyone would expect me to announce it in advance if it had been. I had yet to learn that a technique was being evolved of nailing otherwise untouchable gangsters for failing to pay their income tax; so that on the same basis it might be possible to deport a revolutionist, not for launching a rebellion, but for making a false affidavit of his intentions.

Also on the boat I saw Lee Tracy in a picture called NIGHT MAYOR, from which I learned that all American politicians were grafters and spoke in a machine-gun stream of wisecracks.

But even with this buildup, it was still a case of love at first sight. The buildings of New York were even taller and shinier than I had imagined them. I sat in my cheap hotel room on Lexington Avenue and looked across at the soaring white towers of the Waldorf, so clean and graceful in contrast to the smoke-grimed stodginess of the London architecture I had just left, rising sheer and white against the kind of spotless blue sky that London almost never sees. I was taken to speakeasies where sinister types (now highly respected head waiters) inspected you coldly from behind iron-grilled peepholes before they let you in. I got used to the rattling hard-boiled pace of New York dialogue, which while its wisecracks might not always seem so fresh and witty as those I had heard from the screen still had a totally different tempo fro the English. I had an electrifying stimulation from it, a sense of the same nervous urgency that radiated from the scurrying crowds on the sidewalks and the pressing honking traffic in the packed streets, a sense of infinite energy driving at terrific pressure toward unlimited opportunities. The elemental force of it infected me, spurred me to try and match the pace, dazzled me with the same prospect of infinite horizons.

I still remember that, even though I have since lost much of my eagerness for it and chosen for my own taste the more leisured and graceful complacency of the West. But I was younger then, and no doubt more full of fire and ambition. It was still a part of my assimilation of and by America.

I liked it even when in March 1933, after this new zest had brought several unexpected stories out of me and raised my $25 ante to some $500, the now historic Bank Holiday cut me off again at the roots--with the added excitement that this accumulating fortune happened to be deposited in the only New York bank which failed to open again. Because fatefully at that time, when I was literally down to my last borrowed nickel, I received my first offer from a Hollywood studio; and with no leeway to haggle about salary I found myself on my way here [Hollywood] within a couple of days, with my fare paid by Paramount and a few dollars to eat with on the train borrowed from an indulgent publisher.

And after that there was another dream come true, and I was driving daily up to the gates of Paramount Studios with the famous trade mark emblazoned on a water tank overhanging them, and every time I was reminding myself a little incredulously "This is Hollywood, and I'm here. This is the place where they make those pictures, and I'm going in there and be part of it." It wasn't quite as good as that, because my depression salary was very small, and the picture I helped to make was very unimportant, and I went through nearly all the conventional frustrating experiences of all the other writers who have come to Hollywood expecting fame and glamor. In fact I became so exasperated that in the end I fought with everyone and finally pulled out in disgust, swearing that I would never come back; but that anger too was partly disproportionate and afterwards was partly mellowed by time, so that eventually a day was bound to come when I'd be back. Days were always bound to come when America would bring me back; and they did come, under many pretexts, for trips of inevitably increasing duration. In 1935, when I came over with Charles Laughton, who was on his way to do mutiny on the bounty with a full set of uniforms from Captain Bligh's original tailor, when I was still supercilious about Hollywood and glad that I only had to talk to the American magazine about some stories. In 1936, when I flew over on the maiden trip of the Hindenburg, a newspaper correspondent then, with Webb Miller who was killed in a London blackout and Ralph Barnes who was shot down over Berlin. In 1937, when I landed in Florida and saw those Everglades, and then drove across to California and saw everything in between. In 1938, when I had decided that the only way to see the country was in a trailer, and I built the trailer which I still have and lived in it for eighteen months, and learned America from San Diego to the Canadian border, from Miami to New Jersey, and east to west in between.

After this, there was no possible choice at all, except one which had been made by my parents a long time ago, and by the Congress of the United States in 1924, when they enacted the Oriental Exclusion Act, defining Orientals as all people with 50% or more of "Oriental blood" and forbidding them admittance to the Promised Land.

The "Oriental blood", or any other kind of blood definition, seems to have been pretty well washed out during the last war's campaign for blood donors; but the racial distinction never does seem to have been settled, since I still get form inviting me to state my "race", and I still don't know the answer, because there are no stock names for a 50-50 split and in the case of a tie it seems that no prizes are awarded.

In 1939 I hadn't even realized that this was an immigration problem. By that time I had lost most of my English accent, both in speech and thinking. My dearest friends were scattered about America from coast to coast, and England was the country I only visited, without too much enjoyment, and feeling more of a stranger there every time. So that when I made my last trip to London, armed with a letter from the late General Theodore Roosevelt to Ambassador Joe Kennedy to expedite my quota application, I had no idea that there would be any hitch and I'm sure it hadn't occurred to Ted either.

I came back as before, on one of those transient visas, good for another six months at home; and that seemed to be the hopeless end of that. It hadn't occurred to me that the laws of a country like this might be flexible, since there is no such thing as a flexible law in England; or that the Congress of the United States might take time out to review an individual case. And yet one day there was a bill introduced by the late Senator Hiram Johnson, which after more than a year of kicking about between the two Houses and their committees finally took the following form.

[The act was signed by President F.D. Roosevelt on December 8, 1942, and allowed Leslie Charteris and his daughter, Patricia Ann Charteris permanent residence, and therefore the right to eventually become citizens of the United States. Further in this letter, Charteris went on to talk about his quest for citizenship, and ended with the following paragraphs]

This morning, in the company of a crowd of other candidates who must have started with the same aspirations and passed the same tests, I was shepherded before a judge, and together we repeated: "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."

I am an American.

From The Saint.org

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