The Tylenol Killer

January 5, 2014. 

I was mopping my apartment’s kitchen floor in Chicago when the phone rang, in June of 1983. A man said, “Mr. Baldwin? This is Bill Hunt calling.” Silence. “William Hunt? You don’t know who I am. You sent an unsolicited play to me; it’s a wonder I read it. Are you sitting down?”

I was standing holding a mop. And now I was in shock. “We’re going to debut “Going Steady” in late October, Off Broadway at the Quaigh Theatre on Forty-third Street. I need you here for rehearsals, starting in August. I’m sending you a plane ticket. Mr. Baldwin?”

In mere seconds I had morphed, from floor swabber to playwright. Weeks later, I found myself living in New York City, in Brooklyn Heights at my friend Sheila C.’s attic apartment, at the beginning of September. I was already fighting with Bill Hunt over rewrites; we were oil and gasoline. And I was making the rounds of TV and radio shows. I appeared on the “Joe Franklin Show,” sitting next to Brooke Shields, then a teenager promoting antismoking. And the old Borscht Belt comedian, Joey Adams, and his wife had me on their radio show, along with Jack Klugman’s wife. I was hot.

Meanwhile, back in Chi, seven people had died or were dying after taking Tylenol. It was determined that the capsules had been tampered with and placed in random pharmacies. The FBI was on the case. I knew about it but I wasn’t into the news then—I was my own news.

Then came the Sunday night when Bill Hunt ordered me to leave my own theater. I had refused to make any more script changes, citing the Dead Playwright Theory: Shakespeare is dead therefore you can edit him to the bone. Living playwrights are a pain in the ass—they talk back. Bill had had enough of me that night. It was his right to throw me out of my play’s rehearsals. On my way out, an actress followed me to the lobby, whispered my name and pulled me to her, shoving her breasts into my defenseless chest. I took it like a man.

And out onto Forty-third Street I came, righteously indignant. I decided to buy a bottle of  Chianti and a Sunday Chicago Tribune, go home to Brooklyn Heights, get high with Sheila C. and forget this turn of events. The Times Square newsstand was in front of me. I went to the stand and ordered my “Trib.” The vendor gave me the eye. He began to tremble, turning ever so slowly to fetch the newspaper, when suddenly men in suits came up behind me, threw me to the sidewalk and shouted, “Hands up! Get your damned hands up!” They handcuffed me and people cheered.

I had enough time to glance at the paper’s cover and see a grainy color photo of a guy who vaguely resembled me, thinning, longish hair and big glasses. The “Trib’s” headline, bold and large, said something about the search for the Tylenol Killer. It turned out that a suspect in the killings had sent a handwritten letter to the paper, demanding that it be printed on the front page or more people would die. The envelope had a New York stamp on it. The Feds were staking out newsstands all over town, reasoning that the guy’s ego would drive him to buy a copy. And there was the letter, on the front page. I laughed. I was an idiot back then.

The G-Men pulled me to my feet and searched my wallet. Sure enough, I was E. Eugene Baldwin of Chicago, Illinois. What was I doing in New York? I told the men I was a playwright and there was my theater, but a hundred yards from here. Could I prove it?

We waded through the crowd and perp-walked to the Quaigh, housed in the seedy Hotel Diplomat. Two agents escorted me into the second floor theater. There onstage was an exact replica of an Alton bar. The prop juke box at stage left had a song called “Going Steady (And Other Fables of the Heart)” on it, written and recorded by me.

The cast, two men and two women, gasped. Bill Hunt, sitting in the first row, pivoted his head and saw his playwright, handcuffed and wild-eyed. He was thrilled. “What’s he done now?” Bill asked an agent. “Do you know this man?” “Regrettably, I do. He calls himself a playwright. Feel free to take him to jail. Just get him the hell out of my theater.”

Back to the street we went. The Feds took my cuffs off and walked away without so much as a “We’re sorry.” I retrieved my paper, bought my wine and had a nice evening with Sheila C., just across the street from where Audrey Hepburn’s character Holly Golightly had lived, in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

The next Thursday, the guy who wrote the letter entered the New York Public Library and took a Sunday “Chicago Tribune” off the rack. He was tackled, shackled and sent off to prison. He spent several years in jail.

Somehow, the incident has disappeared from the history books. The makers of Tylenol had something to do with it. Google the Tylenol Killer and you’ll see what I mean. The story would have been neatly tucked away if I hadn’t been an involuntary witness.

Bill and I made up. The play was a bust. A young and upcoming theater company, Steppenwolf, was opening their Broadway version of “The Grapes of Wrath.” Guess which play the critics went to see? At least I can say, Brooke Shields kissed me in that phony show biz way, her stage mother Terri standing off camera and giving me the evil eye, lest I insert my tongue.

At least I got there.

 

 

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