AFTERMATH: December 19, 1931
From the upcoming book, EIGHTH WONDER: CARL DENHAM AND THE BEAST-GOD OF SKULL ISLAND
I’m very interested in the facts. I’ve found that the facts are always a good starting point for any nonfiction film.
- Carl Denham
It was, in the days and weeks following the event, a news story that did not travel very far outside of New York City.And even in the Big Apple, ongoing coverage of the incident, bizarre as it was, seemed strangely muted after forty-eight hours had passed—as if to further prove, perhaps, that the jaded denizens of Manhattan were inured to whatever odd twist of fate was thrown at them, even if it involved a rampaging giant ape.
But headlines screamed when the sun came up on the morning after, steadily escalating as the presses worked continuously on extras throughout the day. It was a newsboy’s dream: “Denham’s Ape Rampages,” “Giant Gorilla Creates Chaos,” “Beautiful Blonde in Clutches of Savage,” “Beast Machine-Gunned Off Skyscraper.” The pictures and stories were unbelievable, yet who could deny what was right there in black and white on every broadsheet and tabloid in the city?
The Empire State Building cupola and “mooring mast,” just recently freed of its construction scaffolding, went back under cover for repairs before nightfall. It would be returned to mint condition in just over two weeks,at which point notice of its re-emergence was conspicuously absent from the front page and accompanied by precious little fanfare. Even the Empire State’s prodigious mouthpiece and front man, colorful former New York governor and one-time presidential candidate Al Smith, “the happy warrior,” seemed weary of fielding questions from reporters asking when the first airship would dock on what was clearly an impractical platform. At the same time, the observatories just below and near the top of the cupola (despite the fact that their ticket clearly stated “Admit one to the 102nd floor,” sightseers could go only as high as the 101st) were averaging 2,200 paying visitors per day before the incident, which had created a gross income (including souvenirs and refreshment sales) of $875,000 for 1931. Reopening as soon as possible was imperative for a building that had precariously few tenants from whom to collect rent.
And there was, of course, the matter of a smashed, bloodied body at the foot of the skyscraper. Witnesses—and there were hundreds—watched through the night as important and important-looking people were ushered through the tight police cordon surrounding a mound of crimson-glistening fur. Lawyers swooped in and gathered like crows; they peered beneath the canvas that covered both Denham’s beast and a fire truck demolished by the impact of the fallen animal. They clustered in tight groups for alternately hushed and boisterous debate over who was ultimately to blame, who would pay, and who would take possession of the remains.Eventually, a small motorcade carrying Governor Roosevelt and his entourage appeared, and the cordon widened to accommodate his level of celebrity. He was photographed looking solemnly at the carcass, and then moved into the building’s lobby for his briefing.
The corpse was hauled away remarkably quickly. So quickly, in fact, that late risers arriving for their glimpse of the great dead thing were greeted with nothing more than a wet patch of cracked pavement ringed with crimson-spattered snow. Embattled Mayor Jimmie Walker, to no one’s surprise, made political hay of the efficiency of New York’s city services after the crisis. The fact that Governor Roosevelt appointee Samuel Seabury was turning over many embarrassing stones in his investigation of New York’s various government departments did nothing to diminish “Gentleman Jimmie’s” aplomb; in fact, he’d allowed Roosevelt to arrive first and made his own entrance only after the Governor had gone inside the building, guaranteeing maximum notice of his presence while still making a show of deference to FDR.He was dressed, as always, neat as a pin, and gave the impression of a man simply making a stopover on his way to further, far more interesting engagements.
Spent 30-08 caliber machine gun shell casings littered the ground. They’d provided a hell of a show the night before. Spectators at street level heard a burst of machine gun fire from the Navy F-4Bs overhead, followed a few seconds later by localized cries and exclamations within the crowd. These yelps spread outward like an audio wave as brass ejected by the fighters’ Browning machine guns cascaded from over a quarter mile above, a thunder-and-lightning rhythm that added a bizarre wrinkle to an already strange evening. In the months and years to follow, these shell casings supplemented the traditional marbles used as currency by kids on playgrounds all over New York and New Jersey, and remain sought-after collectibles today.
A congressional investigation into that evening’s fiasco, only recently unsealed, would lead to disciplinary charges against various links in the Navy chain of command. Stray bullets caused property damage, injuries, and even deaths in a multi-block radius around the targeted skyscraper. Pilot Jimmie Allen’s parents received on this day a hand-delivered notification of their son’s death “while engaging a threat to the city and people of New York City.”
Carl Denham got his moment and used it well. He exited the Empire State Building lobby as flashbulbs strobed and reporters jostled for position, keeping up with him stride for stride. A pencil jockey—could he have been a plant?—fed the showman the straight line he seemed to be waiting for.
“So, Mr. Denham—the aviators got him, eh?”
Denham stopped and looked in the direction of his broken beast, pausing long enough for each photographer to frame, focus, and flash.
“No, no, it wasn’t the aviators,” he finally said. “It was Beauty, I tell you. It’s always the Beauty that kills the Beast.”
The fact that he’d already tried this line out on a police sergeant up on the 102nd story of the tower was unknown to the ink-stained wretches surrounding Denham, and none would have cared had they known. They’d gotten their kicker and ate it up like hungry dogs. Denham’s showman’s instincts were as yet unflustered by the evening’s unforeseen and incredible events, and, as always, he upheld his part of the bargain.
And then, Carl Denham was gone.
This was the inverse of early reporting on now-famous outlaws of the early thirties like Bonnie & Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, and John Dillinger, whose initial exploits were trumpeted by banner headlines in the Midwest while meriting small (if any) mention in newspapers on the east and west coast—until popularized, of course, by Hoover’s emergent FBI and Hollywood.
It was fortunate for all involved in the mooring mast repair work that the structure did not actually contain the intricate mechanisms necessary to deliver on the builder’s rather specious promise of providing mid-town docking for zeppelins and airships. The topmost cone was in fact set on a light trusswork ready to be lifted when the promised interior rigging was ready for installation. Repairs after the beast took refuge there were completed at relatively low cost.
Claims would be made by the U.S. Navy (spoil of war), the New York Transit System (to help pay for damage to the 6th Avenue Elevated), and the owners of the Empire State Building (as reimbursement for damage to the building) before the surprise seizure of the body by the British Government, citing illegal removal of property from British territorial waters.
The mayor, while an inveterate patron of Broadway’s biggest attractions, did not attend Denham’s show. This led to baseless speculation—fed by Walker’s many enemies—that the mayor knew in advance that there would be trouble.