One night we were in the elevator of the "21" Club going down to the ground floor after a party in one of the private rooms and Denise Darcel got into the elevator with us. She was a French movie actress who was very hot back then and when she looked up at Brennan in the cramped little elevator cab her eyes widened, much as Balboa's might have done the first time he looked out on the Pacific Ocean.
By the time we got off she was chattering away in a breathy, Gallic way, and clearly had plans for Brennan. Won't he look fine on the Champs Elysees, her tone seemed to suggest. Except that Dick was addressing her as "Miss Darcel" and backing away. Had she been Typhoid Mary, Dick could not have been more politely distant. Mademoiselle Darcel finally gave up and left with her handlers, an entourage of movie people, as all of us jumped on Brennan for a failure to execute. Dick just shrugged and gave us that wry smile. If a guy from Framingham, Mass., with a New England accent could get away with, "Aw, shucks," it might have been Dick.
He was in the Big War as a Marine in the Pacific but I didn't fall in with him until '51 when we met at Quantico, Brennan a decorated combat veteran first lieutenant, myself a kid just out of college, the greenest of second lieutenants. He went off to Korea first and got badly chewed up in a firefight where he killed a lot of Chinese and ended up back in New York at St. Alban's Naval Hospital about the time I was shipping out.
At St. Alban's, which is about 20 minutes by cab from midtown Manhattan, Brennan fell among rogues. There were four of them now, Brennan, Austin "Ace" Parker, Joe Owen and John Ledes, all of them officers and, oddly, each with a bad right arm. Dick's was full of machine-gun holes, Ledes got his in a plane crash into the Truckee River near Reno, and I don't know where Joe and Ace got theirs but I know Joe was in the bad winter fighting up at the Chosin Reservoir so maybe that's where it happened.
We were talking about it just the other day, Ledes and I. He was the one of them who had a little money and took an apartment on East End Avenue in Manhattan up near Gracie Mansion where the mayor lives. The four were all still officially patients at St. Alban's, undergoing various therapies, but as officers and gentlemen, spent as little time at the naval hospital and as much time at places like the Stork Club and "21" as they could handle.
Ledes was telling me about Nov. 10, 1951, the birthday of the Marine Corps, when he and Ace and Dick and Joe were at the Stork for a blood-raising drive where any serviceman who came in and donated a pint got drinks on the house. Trouble was, some of these 18-and-19-year-old kids, unaware of what a couple of shooters could do when you'd just given blood, were reeling about helplessly while Sherman Billingsley rubbed his hands in glee and our four gallant lieutenants cheered on the lads and ordered them another.
The apartment on East End soon became a sort of "My Sister Eileen" hangout where Marine officers were always welcome. They slept everywhere. They slept in the bathtub. The place was also always filled with women. Except for checking in at St. Alban's from time to time for work on their wounded wings, the guys pretty much kept a 24-hour cocktail party going. Brennan, being the shy one, of course attracted the most attention, with numerous young women offering to mother him and tuck him away somewhere cozy far from the cold cruel world.
By the time I got back from Korea the following year there were people living with Ledes I'd never even heard of. One guy habitually slept on the couch with his .45 under the cushions and in the wee hours one night, damn near killed one of the other Marines who, having misplaced his key, was climbing in through the living-room window.
Eventually, we all grew up and became adults. Dick Brennan worked in ad agencies and for a fine insurance company, but he was always writing a play. It was going to be a wonderful play, he said, and you could go to the bank on Dick's word. He had one suit, navy blue Brooks Bros., always wore white shirts, and never had any money. A couple of years ago he fell ill and Ledes and the rest of us arranged to get him into the VA Hospital up at West Haven.
John called me the other day. Dick died Saturday April 12, he said. They said it was a blessing but I don't know. All I'm sure of is you don't kill what was in that guy. The Japanese couldn't, the Chinese couldn't, the apartment on East End couldn't. Man who can walk away from Denise Darcel in the "21" Club, he lives forever in our hearts.