Basil Rathbone’s Mysterious MessageBy DICK CAVETT
I know, I know. I promised you several ghost stories. This one requires a longer treatment than I expected. I shan’t forget the others.
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I have this story from none other than the great Basil Rathbone. (Sorry, youngsters. Google him or forget it.) I hope it doesn’t sound too strange to confess that, even as a kid, I had a sort of crush on Rathbone. I can’t detect any erotic element in it; I just wanted to look, talk and act like he did. I was in high school, and back then I knew him only as Sherlock Holmes, but that was plenty. I was sorry to learn that he disdained those 15 or so Holmes pictures as “my bread and butter films,” preferring to be remembered as Romeo, Karenin, et al. Where else would a kid my age meet Basil Rathbone but in Lincoln, Neb.?
He was there to narrate a huge concert-drama event at the University of Nebraska, and he’d agreed to meet informally with the drama students there. I played hooky and went, of course, thinking that surely Lincoln High School would understand. (It failed to.) The event took place in the small “experimental” theater. I bulldozed my way backstage, and there he stood — not on the screen but feet from me. I sidled up to where he was chatting before going on. There was the inimitable voice (no impressionist has ever done him), and the first words I heard him speak were, “Of course I only made the one picture with Greta.”
I can almost feel the chill now. I thought to myself, “Toto, we’re not in Nebraska anymore.” (But we were.) A moment later I caught, “So Norma Shearer walked by and I said, ‘Norma’….” I don’t think I knew the phrase name-dropping, a thing I did plenty of after meeting Basil. I would hardly have called this that anyway; these were the people he knew and worked with. It was his world. And Oh, God, how I wanted to be part of it.
I checked out how he used his hands, both when talking and hanging them at his sides, index fingers almost pointed, the rest curled. (The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art?) You don’t want to hear about my sessions at a full-length mirror, practicing these cherished physical niceties. I treasured every overheard utterance — as in, “I seem unable to conquer my fear of flying. I’m nervous as a kitten on an aeroplane.” Holmes, scared?, I mused.
(Is this getting to be too much for anybody? Just in case, let’s get to our promised subject, the story Rathbone told me some years later, when we were both in New York.)
Rathbone was entertaining a friend one night at his home in the Hollywood Hills. Both men were keenly interested in dogs and their breeding. His friend had brought with him two handsome specimens. As it got late, the two friends had a parting drink and called it a night. The friend and the canines got into the car and drove away. But, sadly, not very far.
As Rathbone turned to go back inside, he heard the screech of brakes and the sickening sounds of a ghastly car crash. His friend and the dogs were killed instantly. In deep shock, and with the thought, “He was just standing here,” pounding in his aching head, Rathbone heard the damned phone begin ringing. Mechanically he picked it up and heard the voice of the MGM studio’s night switchboard operator. “Sorry, Mr. Rathbone but I have a woman on the line who simply must talk to you. She says it’s desperately, desperately important.” Probably some smitten fan, he thought as the operator said, “Sir, I’ve never heard anyone be so urgent. She hopes you’ll know what a certain message means.”
Rathbone, impatient and in a daze, snapped, “For Christ’s sake, put her on and be done with it!”
The woman was calling from her home, located way to hell and gone on the far side of Los Angeles. She had a low and cultivated speaking voice and identified herself as a trance medium and clairvoyant. At that time the movie colony was going through one of its periodic infatuations with psychics, astrologers, table-tipping séances, Ouija boards and such. Rathbone scorned all such claptrap, but, he said, “the woman’s voice was so compelling.”
“I have for you, sir, what we term ‘a calling of urgency,’” she said. “It came to me with such impact that, although not knowing its meaning, I simply had to find you. The message is brief. Here it is in its entirety: ‘Traveling very fast. No time to say good-bye.’ And then, ‘There are no dogs here.’ ”
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The next time I saw Rathbone (F.Y.I., he lived at 135 Central Park West), more years had gone by, and he was in the act of receiving a summons for letting his dog Ginger off the leash in Central Park. I thought he might have decided, looking back, that it had all been some sort of bizarre coincidence, or maybe a highly original prank. He said, “At the time, of course, I was quite shaken by it.” And now? “I am still shaken by it.”