Ain’t nuthin’ can spoil your day like a lawyer letter. ’Specially one from a New York City mouthpiece claiming to represent James Cagney. Yeah, the “You dirty rat” James Cagney.
Our 10th year at Cagney’s. Biz is bottom-line lofty. Even had to add an additional dining area, game room and a Dancin’ Room. No longer hadta borrow from banks to survive shlump winters. The brick walls are going up at our other restaurant, Flamingo Grill.
Food cost running around 36 percent. Labor around 26 percent. We shoot for 60 percent with those two major costs, rarely hit it. Much more than 65 percent and your bottom line is usually suckin profit wind. You’re a bankruptcy waitin’ to happen.
Martha, my girl Friday, my business everything, hands me a registered envelope, says, “I had to sign for it.” I scissor it open.
Barin’ its teeth at me in 14-point Arial is one-a those cease and desist, eat dookie and die letters that back up your bowels and drop your heart down among your liver ’n stuff.
Some Manhattan mouthpiece claims we’re using James Cagney’s name without his permission. Gotta be some kinda snafu. I’ll call em up’n politely ’splain we have a national trademark on the Cagney’s Old Place name. And ’splain the 4-foot photo of Cagney on the wall has a disclaimer under it stating we have no association with Jimmy Cagney or any other famous person.
I keep phoning the letterhead number.
Secretary’s answer is always firewall short, Manhattan snotty. Her three-piece-suit boss was always too busy.
He left early, he’s in conference, in court, outta town, on the toilet, lunch with the mayor, gettin’ communion from the archbishop...yada, yada.
Twenty unaccepted calls later, I tell his dominatrix...
“Ma’am, I’ve been patient and polite and you’ve been curt and rude. I know he’s busy, but he’s no busier than I am. So either he takes my call or I’m gonna call you every 15 minutes till you get too old to hold your water, and I don’t go to sleep until 3 a.m.”
The three-piece suit comes on the phone: “Have your attorney contact me…”
“I’m contacting you right now.”
“Then abide by the letter or we’ll see you in court.”
“Sir, I’m certain there’s a misunderstanding.”
“No misunderstanding. You’ve got three clear-cut choices. Close your business, change your name, or you can see me in court and face punitive damages after I’ve shut your operation down. So my advice is just abide by...”
“I ain’t in the abiding mood. And I don’t abide by threats. You can take your letter and your whiplash collars and stick ’em where the sun don’t shine.”
This bottom-feedin’ Big Apple bastard even gives TV lawyers a poopoo name. But rather than continue to kick a lawyer hornet’s nest, I decide to punt.
I compile a mound of info that includes the unabridged history of Cagney’s: Corporate resolution, logo, interior/exterior photos and every word I’ve written on menus, print ads, brochures and radio copy...of course
I included a copy of my National Trademark. Reg. No. 1133365.
I register-mail the five-pound pile to the schmuck lawyer.
Sent the exact same package and a personal letter to James Cagney at his home in Verney Farms in Stanfordville, New York.
Wutn’t but a few days later I get a startling phone call.
“This is Marge Zimmerman, Jimmy Cagney’s secretary.”
I figure it’s a not so funny joke. One a my so-called friends gotta be yankin’ my chain.
“Mister Cagney asked me to tell you he enjoyed looking through your package and greatly appreciated your thoughtful letter...”
Still thought this might be a joke.
“Well please tell Mister Cagney I...” “You can tell him yourself, he’d like to speak to you,” she says.
I did say a few jake things about Mister Cagney in my cover letter. Man comes on the phone. Damn. If it’s a joke, it’s a five-star one. Sounds just like Cagney.
“Dino boy...everything’s fine, just fine. I’m lookin at a photo you sent me of your handsome mahogany bar.”
I’d sent him 8x10 glossies of every square inch of the restaurant.
“I want you to pour yourself a drink of your best scotch and send the bill to me” he says. “Sorry they bothered you. Guess they’re sittin’ around tryin to make a fee. I don’t need any more money. And I damn sure don’t need a restaurant.”
“Mister Cagney...I certainly appreciate you calling.”
“Call me Jimmy.”
I’m still ass-tight, cogitatin’ I need some kind of proof I actually spoke to Cagney.
“Mr. Cagney, do I need some kind of letter to the effect we spoke?”
“Hell no, those sonbitches work for me. You’ll never hear from them again.”
I snicker. “Sounds like you might knock ’em off...”
“If it’ll make you feel any better, I will.” We both chuckle at that.
“You could at least smush a grapefruit in his face.”
That got a hearty laugh.
“Mister Cagney...one more thing. I had a four-foot framed photo of you on the wall. Want me to leave it up or take it down?”
Hear him shufflin’ through the info pile I sent to him, which includes an 8x10 glossy of that photo.
“Hey, that’s a heckuva picture! Keep that damn thing up.”
“I’ll have it back up in 10 minutes.”
Jimmy Cagney, born poor on the lower east side, was a formidable street fighter, a vaudevillian and jaunty hoofer, a tough guy in life and movies and a man married to the same woman for 64 years.
This was the man who played “The Public Enemy,” “White Heat,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “GMen” and “Angels with Dirty Faces.”
And, in real life, a stud enough guy to film Tommy gun scenes with live ammo. Iron ass enough to stand up to mafia influence when he was president of the Screen Actors Guild. It was said the mob ordered a hit. But George Raft, another hoofer/actor, for-real tough guy, made a few phone calls and the hit was called off.
Raft did have some pals named Bugsy and Meyer.
Yeah, Cagney was always a class act. A man with enough class and heart to personally call some stranger in Myrtle Beach and apologize for his trouble.
Maybe ’cause he grew up over his ’ole man’s saloon, he had a soft spot for another kid who grew up over a downtown food joint and saloon.
Never heard from that New York suit again.
Maybe Cagney did off the mouthpiece. Maybe he just smushed a grapefruit in his face.
Whatever he did, he’s a real Yankee Doodle Dandy in my eyes.
I can see him hitchin’ up his trousers, twistin’ his neck, and givin’ me a playful punch on the chin.
After that phone call, I was tap dancing down the steps thinkin, “I sure chose the right name for my food joint.”
Cagney died at home eight months later.
Obit led off with “Master of Pugnacious Grace.” Heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson and dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov were two of his pallbearers. President Ronald Reagan gave the eulogy.
Marge Zimmerman, Cagney’s secretary and later caregiver, came by a few times. Brought me photos of Cagney at home. When we talked about Cagney’s love of dancing, she told me the tap dance scene down the steps at the end of the movie “Yankee Doodle Dandy” was a Cagney ad lib. Well, of course it was.
Editor’s note: Dino Thompson, co-owner of the Flamingo Grill and the former Cagney’s with Dino Drosas, tells the colorful story of his interaction with the legendary actor in the 1980s.