Thursday, July 02, 2015

IN AMSTERDAM

Strangely, I am in Amsterdam.  Strangely, because of all the places I have been in the course of many non-careers, this is the one where I feel most connected.  Here is where I came mainly by accident, it being the place the plane went when I left Scotland, where I had been visiting Rosie, my friend from Quaker Meeting in Paris, whose life changed when she counseled criminals and ran off with one of them, leaving her husband, the head of a department at the University of Edinboro, I think it was, and several children.  Not a happy finale, though, as she rode on a bus and saw her lover lying dead by the side of the road.  But aside from that, almost a movie.
      Nothing in the world anymore seems to be almost a movie, and I imagine that is because of jet lag, one of the least pretty figures of speech in the English language, but more than a little accurate.  It is now ten days, I think, since I left wherever I was, Los Angeles to the best of my cloudy recollection, and I have failed to catch up with myself or whoever she is.   Handsome Daniel, my acquired scamp from an earlier journey, was waiting for me at the airport in Amsterdam, took me home to his totally unsettled (except by every friend who comes through and a few teenage children and all his daughter’s friends over the weekend) apartment, a ground-floor with a back porch with a roof that is sinking into the cellar below.  I love him very much, (friend only,) but organization is not his suit—he is a mountain climber.  His walls are decked with pictures of slopes, I think they are, and books, mostly mysteries, more than I have read, or probably ever will now, and pictures of his beautiful daughter and son (beautiful as well,) by an angularly gorgeous Dutch woman from whom he is long estranged except over the fates of their children.  I trust he will not be angry with me for revealing this much inside info as he has no wish for fame, notoriety, or fortune, but wants only to keep climbing, earning a living however it makes itself available. 
      I suppose if athleticism were this available instead of compulsory education and the option of non-material goals in America, there might be this much mountain climbing, or even climbing without mountains—they have rocks or just artificial things I don’t remember the right names for, as I am still painfully behind, maybe never to catch up, it feels like.  But I am lucky to have found this little corner of the canal, and the beauteous souls afloat in it, no matter how cluttered their environs—not a criticism, just an observation. 
      And it was gorgeous, and privileged, to have had a little side trip to Copenhagen to visit my beautiful Danes, Kristoffer and Maria, picked up on the streets of New York when they were working for the UN, with one beautiful little year-old girl checking
Herself out in a mirror.  There is another one now, a three-year old, Winston, who tore my heart out as the taxi pulled away from the Tivoli Gardens where we had gone for the evening, as he mouthed, uninstructed, “I love you, Granny Gwen.”  Never before have I taken being older as a gift of Grace.
      I am still hopeful that this sluggishness of mentality might be jet lag, and not what I can expect forever, or what there is to be of forever. 
      The place where I am now is a café/restaurant in a building right next to Apple where I will have a lesson in an hour to try and move me up to the next plateau of using this thing, so I will not feel so retarded.  I am hoping it is only the weariness that has made me so slow, and not having lived as long as I have, to my surprise.  Darling Jack Carter, a very fast-talking, fast-thinking and nice(in-between insults) standup comedian, who was a friend has an obit in today’s New York Times, gone at 93—a pretty good run, it seems to me, especially for a comic.  As I remember, we introduced him to an ex-girlfriend, or maybe it was a wife, of Warren Cowan, the publicist, and he married her.  She was not mentioned in his obit, but some of his jokes were.  A really good guy, which it couldn’t have been easy to be, the way that business was.
     And maybe still is, though from what I have scanned, racing through the TV stations, it has become much different from my idea of funny.  As love has probably become different from my idea of love.  Though decency and caring have stayed pretty close to my idea of decency and caring.  At least in Amsterdam.


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

A VANISHED TALL HERO

So I have spent the time marking all the bluster surrounding Jurassic Everything,  and missing my friend Michael Crichton.  It seems very unfair to me, as I am fairly certain it did to Michael, that he should have been so struck down, on the brink of his greatest, probably tallest triumph.
   Michael was, in spite of his brilliance and height, -- he was, as I noted, neck very stiff from looking upwards at his very good-looking face-- incredibly tall, six foot seven or maybe eight or nine, I never knew exactly and was too intimidated and also a little aware of how self-conscious he might have been to ask him.  But once when he was going to do a morning talk show I was on the phone nursing him into being fearless for, the camera was above him, looking down.  And on the monitor you could see the top back of his head, and it was bald, which you somehow never expected for someone who seemed so invulnerable because of his brain.  And darling, too.  I really liked him.
     He was actually so lonely he came one night to one of those church gatherings that had nothing to do with God but everything to do with Loneliness-- a Singles evening in Westwood.  Row upon row of desperate alone women in front of one of those fraudulent practitioners who's going to tell you how to nail somebody.  As I remember, there were not many, if any men.  But Michael had asked me about it, and showed up, smart, creative, successful fellow that he was, a marriage or two already under his good-looking belt.  He didn't connect with anybody there but a while afterwards brought a date to a Sunday brunch I had, whipped into omelets by a lady chef from D.C. trying to make a career in L.A. And his date, a tall, merciless blonde lay across him on my terrace, wearing no underwear as noted by another guest though not aloud.  Not too long afterwards he married her and sired a daughter, who I hope gave him more satisfaction than the wife did.
      There was a tenderness Michael had that was surprising, and I hope his daughter brought him joy, though a lot of things happened like kidnap threats and having to have their Malibu home guarded, and for the remainder of their beach life I didn't see him.  But I was sure he stayed sweet, and really tall, and was shocked and saddened when he died, much too soon, and very very rich.
     My doctor who's a very smart man says that real height-- height like Michael's is an impairment, that it puts you at risk.  I think brains like his probably also do, especially if you're kind.  I have no way of knowing how he was towards the end, and am lately in the midst of disbelieving hopes about an Afterlife, or any subsequent journeys for the spirit, though I am still open to having my soul confounded, should it turn out to have a journey of its own.  But I remain grateful for having known him, and impressed that anyone who actually rubbed shoulders with some of the Greaties at Oxford AND Sean Connery, should have stayed comparatively humble in spite of how tall he was.  

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

AN EMPTY HEAD, WITH REWRITES

So feeling dispirited and empty, I spent the day going over some of my old writings, and found this lovely (it seems now, and in view of Life, genuinely is,) recollection.  From when I was still dazzled by my mother, one of the great characters of her time, who might have been more noted (and maybe even celebrated) had the novel about her, THE MOTHERLAND,  not reached print and the eyes of the world at the same moment Nixon fell, when there was little interest (or maybe even reason) for Fiction.

                                                FACADE

Towards the end of her life, rather than grow old, my mother crashed parties.  She was a pretty woman, tiny, dark and lively, with a dazzling smile and great legs, which, as Marlene Dietrich told us, are the last thing to go.  She was as savvy as she could be engaging, so she would study The New York Times for coming events.  When that information was not specific enough, she would study gossip columns as astronomers did the stars.
  Usually one of the wags would brag about all the places she had been and what was coming up of particular note that she, as a stellar being, was invited to.  So my mother, feeling every bit as stellar, had cards printed up with her press credentials, which were, in fact, non-existent, and would call ahead to announce that Helen Schwamm would be attending.  Sometimes she would say she was with Gannett Press, sometimes with DiplomaticWorld, legitimate publications with which she had absolutely no connection.  When she would arrive at the celebration of this and that, her name would be on the list.  And if there was any question, she looked so good and was so quick-thinkingly charming, that no one stopped her.  Thus it was that when New York celebrated its two hundred most important citizens, my mother was among them.
She was not without money, but as she had grown up in the Depression, she lived in fear of running out, and so denied herself certain luxuries she loved, like smoked salmon.  But “No one need go hungry in New York,” she said to me;” there’s parties from morning to night.”  So she had all the smoked salmon hors d’ouevres she wanted, and, depending on the lavishness of what was being passed, sometimes even caviar.   If the event included dinner, she would wait till everyone was seated, and look for the unoccupied chair.  Sometimes if she was feeling particularly social, and had found nothing in the press, she would check the reader boards in the lobbies of the Plaza or the Waldorf, check what was happening there, and attend.
She was never caught, and never embarrassed.  “What if they want to know who you really are?” I asked her once.  “How many people in life ever know who we really are?” she responded.  “Every building in New York has a façade, and so do most of the people.”
As for her personal entertaining, she had a studio apartment at a nice address, but her quarters were small.  So when she wanted to reciprocate for an evening she had actually been invited to, she would invite her friends to meet her at the U.N. for one of their receptions.  It was before the days of heavy security, the guards all knew her(she had given them little gifts to thank them for their kindness), so they would let her and her tiny entourages in.  She saved her key invitations for Korea.  “They have the best ribs,” she said.
I knew all her stories, and marveled at them, but had never seen her in action.  So on one visit to New York, I asked her to take me along.  The event was the 25th anniversary of the National Review.  “Avoid eye contact,” she told me by way of preparation.  “Keep moving with great assurance, and let me handle everything.”  We went into the lobby of the hotel where the party was being held. Not content to gain easy access, she sailed up to the security guard and asked to be directed to the VIP room. He pointed, unquestioning.
We were seated at a table with Henry and Nancy Kissinger, Clare Booth Luce, Roy Cohn, and the Baron and Baroness dePortanova.  Mother introduced herself as Helen Schwamm as though it were a name Mrs. Luce should know, and told her that her daughter, pointing at me, was also a writer.   The Kissingers had recently moved to Connecticut, and Nancy Kissinger, during a lull in the conversation(there are many with Conservatives) said “My friends can’t believe I’m content to live so quietly.”  Without missing a beat, my mother said “My friends feel the same about me.”

She is gone now, and I really miss her.  And from what I’ve observed, so does New York.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

THE PLOT AGAINST SMALL BEGINNINGS

An unmarked benefit, probably one of the few, of being older, is having been in the world when things did not seem so dire.  Among the Biggies, like war and pestilence and nobody really caring, all of which have been here as long as Man (and Woman, too, though she has only lately come to count, but still not enough) is the diminishment of the Creative Spirit and support of it, certainly in the U.S.A.  I know, sadly, how old I am, because my play, a not-bad-comedy cost a hundred and fifty thousand to bring to an opening on Broadway, but failed because it was badly cast, the director was fired, a terrible one replaced him, I had a crazy producer,  I was giving birth to my daughter at the time of its opening, Mel Brooks was a close friend but probably not close enough, so he and Annie Bancroft, his glorious wife, for whom I had actually written it, drove with me and Don back to the hospital opening night, but was doing another play instead, because "I've never played a hunchbacked nun before," she had said.
    A hundred and fifty-thousand dollars might now possibly buy you a good reading with an okay cast, seated on folding chairs in a room upstairs somewhere in the theatre district. It is all insane, overpriced, and, from the little I could stand (and did) seeing when I was in New York, not very good, with the exception of Chita Rivera who made one bend of leg that told you what musical theatre used to be about, and my hearing that the old Fosse Chicago was very much on its legs.  Nothing else on Broadway felt worth seeing, including the one play that was supposed to be powerful and meaningful that I stood through and was sorry,(Fun Home,) Skylight, overrated, with its leading man who flailed his way through almost all his speeches, The Curious Incident of the Dog, etc., that I left at intermission, crossing the famous Rue to see the musical that is, sadly, a compendium of many wonderful Gershwin songs, an American in Paris, that mostly brought to my mind how lucky I had been to be in that city when it was really alive with beginnings that were not  angry and destructive, but all about Creativity.  I saw some others I cannot even remember enough to be disappointed about, another unadvertised benefit of getting older.
      But I did come across something that should give anguish to and hopefully cause to bring to action everybody who cares in the least about theatre, good or bad, and that is the struggle now that is going on with the small theaters in California, 99 seats or less: the attempt to make them pay minimum to exist, which will result in their going out of what little business they have.  It is a vile move on the part of Actor's Equity, and I ask whoever reads this if anyone does, to pass it along to an angry or at-least-somewhat-involved Activist, to protest, and, hopefully, try to do something about.  Strange to have come across this on South Beverly Drive,  but then there was little about New York that felt like positive discovery, besides the Quaker Meeting House, with its rows of places to sit and believe in Something, quietly.

RETURN TO NON-WONDERLAND

So I have come back to the wrong side of Wilshire in Beverly Hills, not quite the upmarket zip code, this place which is, apparently, the closest thing I have to a feeling of belonging, besides Bryn Mawr. If irrationality and sentiment prevailed, I could imagine myself for the remainder of my life, in the tower high above Rock,--that's Rockefeller Hall--  writing if I could write, singing if I could sing, and laughing, if there was anything to laugh about.  The aura of Peace that enfolded me when I stood on that campus was palpable, probably a contradiction in terms and/or feelings.  But there it was, and there it will probably stay. I am safely tucked, for the moment, into my Bryn Mawr sweatshirt, which I don't believe they actually had in the days I was a student, or maybe even when I went back to write The Women Upstairs, my comedy of ancient Greece-- what the women were doing upstairs while downstairs Plato and the boys were having their Symposium.  That was a magic, unexpected moment under the aegis of Mabel Lang, the great scholar of antiquity in letters, who managed to infuse me with everything I didn't really know and even now am puzzled  I grasped, it was all so fretted with knowledge and wisdom in spite of its being funny.  I remember best the moment after the great success of the onstage presentation in Goodhart Hall, when I brought Mabel flowers to thank her, in her lined-to-the-ceiling-with-books office, and her saying: "But I should be giving flowers to you!!!  I've never done anything creative before." And with that word she danced, literally spun around her office, that withered, (to the eye at least,) old scholar.  I understand now people who go back to their universities and tower out what is left of their days.
     I am genuinely scared,  a feeling I do not easily put into words, at the prospect, or lack of it, of what lies ahead for me.  The world, if one allows it to come in, seems more insane even than usual.   I was having a great time writing the screenplay for what I was sure would be a charming, funny romantic comedy, based a bit on my adventure in Amsterdam, using that as a jumping-off point.  Then I took a break for my New York visit, which I imagined would strengthen me, my originality, and my capacity to create.  Instead, the harshness of that city was palpable.  There is little to lift the spirit, besides the flouted happiness of George Clooney and the retirement of Letterman who I never found really funny.  Of course, if you're lucky and you let it in, there is always God with Whom I had a momentary encounter at Quaker Meeting in New York.  
    I met some beautiful people there whose names I unfortunately did not put safely away, primary among them a lovely woman who actually said to me after I had announced myself as a newcomer:"Are you the Gwen Davis?"
    And it turned out she was a true reader, someone who had actually enjoyed my writings. So between that and the wondrous Barbara Conaty, a reviewer for the Library Journal who some years ago lauded me and so lifted my life along with my spirit,  I understood that I had not gone un-read, and so unappreciated.  Once in my career I had the support of my most successful writer friend, Mario Puzo, during his glorious reign with The Godfather.  But he got mad at me for writing too much.
    It seems and is less than lovely to need approbation.  But it has been very hard through some of these years since Bryn Mawr where I really knew people read and responded and even cared,  to reach out to a world mostly empty of embracing minds.  And then of course there is the stunning surprise of realizing one has grown unmistakably older, something you never anticipate and, if you're smart, certainly never focus on.  All the same it happens, if you are lucky.
    So I am back now in my overpriced little floor-through, hoping the muses will know where to find me.  The weather, to which I have never paid much attention, is unaccustomedly cool, not promising to stay that way.  I met a lovely woman on the way home from the post office which they blithely think will stay in business-- I'm not so sure, and I think Ben, who started it and believed in after-life consciousness, if he's around, is probably appalled, communication, like everything else, having become overpriced, with all the options meaning an end to reasonable service.  At any rate, this lovely actress tells me that equity is trying to force a minimum on even the 99 seat houses, which means they will go out of business.  If any of you care about the survival of theatre in the US, please do something.  The worst experience I had in New York was in theatre, where everything on Broadway seemed overpriced, less than wonderful (except for Chita) and several stories less than uplifting.
     I realize and know that I am old, but I still remember falling to my knees at the ice cream parlor in front of Bob Fosse, to thank him for all he had done, his actually engaging with me, and writing me from wherever he was to go for not nearly long enough, before leaving the planet.  Where are the Greaties?  Or even the Good-Enoughs?
     Where is Frank Loesser when you need him, even if he was a shit?

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A DAY AT BRYN MAWR

So as the universe seems to love me, from the Story point of view, I spent today at the wonderfully unlikely college I went to: Bryn Mawr.  My Freshman English teacher, Sandra Wool, who wore no underwear, opened her eyes quite wide at me a little way into the first semester after I had written a few papers and expressed a few thoughts, and said "I would have thought Bennington."
     It was quite the most elegant place on the planet.  Beautiful young women in sweaters and saddle shoes whose fathers or uncles were Everybody. That you could be in the same room with them and they were kind, was some kind of Miracle.  It was a privilege more than enough to make up for your beginnings in Pittsburgh, with your father trying to kill your mother, and the police coming, --years and a storied lifetime later, (THE MOTHERLAND), his becoming the mayor of Tucson, and a Republican yet.
    So to return there on this Convocation day, whatever that means,
with the raising of tents and the setting up of chairs on the lawn for the graduation to come, was kind of an out-of-soul experience. Most apparent was the truth that nothing has really changed, except the approach to sexuality, which is now everywhere pointed out and pointed to, and I, as an admittedly old lady--that still comes as a surprise--find unnecessary and borderline funny.  I just don't think that factors into how well you learn, or how much.
    The college otherwise looks exactly the same as it did all that many years ago, except for the weather-streak marks on the roof between Pem West and Rock that I used to run over at night to sing my songs to Muggy, the prettiest girl in the class, that she was kind enough to applaud and encourage my doing more of, not seeming to mind being disturbed.  It was a different world then: only the setting seems exactly unchanged.  I feel good about that, although I am still stunned by how old I am. Well, if you're lucky to live long enough, that happens.
    Had lunch in the Deanery-- we did have quaint names-- with beauteous Wendy Greenfield, in charge of alumnae, which it seems I am, and she is as bright and lovely as one would hope such a figure at Bryn Mawr would be.  Afternoon I took in the campus, with its glorious trees siding Senior Row, its wonderful, great-stoned Gothic arch, roofs (why isn't it rooves?), glorious and unchanged since I was a Junior, my most memorable year because that was the one with the Show in it, that I wrote most of the songs for, and had the comedy lead in. With Miss McBride saying to my mother: "This was the most memorable theatrical event since Katharine Hepburn was an undergraduate here." And my mother looking after her, saying"Who was that?" as though she were saying "Who was that masked man?" And my saying, still barely able to speak, I was so overwhelmed, "the president of the college." And my mother: "I thought it was the washerwoman."  
     So that will tell you all you need to know about my mother, except that you had to forgive her because she was funny and smart and very beautiful as well as crazy.  All these decades later, it plays out, because I have been to the best college in America, and so had a leg up that was twenty feet long.

      
    

Thursday, May 14, 2015

OUR HEARTS WERE OLD AND SAD

Having come from lunch with Victor Navasky, long editor of The Nation, and still holder of the most enlightened opinions and generous attitude towards those who are not as smart, one imagines he/she could live in New York.  This POV prevails for about twenty-five minutes, half a shopping excursion, and part of a taxi ride trying to get back to where one habitats in New York, where one might have been tempted to stay to try and take it on, had not sanity returned within a few blocks, along with the inability to breathe. 
    I apologize for sounding stuck and/or judgmental, since one of the great gifts the universe has sent me in my visitation here is the unexpected friendship of this remarkable man, who approached me a few years out of our respected Quaker colleges, he, Swarthmore, I Bryn Mawr, the latter assertively uncommitted to any belief other than intellectual excellence, but it still was founded by a Quaker. "Are you Gwen Davis?" he asked me at some event.  Knowing who he was, as wasted as my life had seemed up to that point, I waited for an attack.  Instead, I received one of the major rewards of my life: being taken seriously by this brilliant, earnest (in the best sense) and unexpectedly funny man, who makes the world seem and become in many ways a better place.
    This has been a less than joyful return to this city I keep imagining might work for me, which presents itself as ever more crowded, unloving, and unbreathable.  If I were alone in this feeling I would dismiss myself as judgmental and looney, both of which I admit I am to an impressive degree.  But if a person were a truck, he could die between 23rd Street and Columbus Circle.
    Lunch with Victor, however, at the Union Square Cafe, inhabited by the remaining smartly coiffed white-haired people as well as the ghosts of Literature, Magazines, and Caring-About-the-Written Word past and what there is of the non-e-mailed Present, one believes by the end of the meal this might be what there is of the Future, with Careful Footing.  But by the time one gets what is fancifully called Home-- that which Mama thoughtfully provided on Central Park South-- one realizes one has been deluded.  Even those left alive who went to P.S.9, the Great public school when there were such things on West End Avenue, realize that is a bygone era, along with cheap theatre tickets.  Spelled with an 're.'
    So it is with sorrow in my heart along with an itchy left breast from the pollen that I plan to return to the lack of inspiration of Beverly Hills, the wrong side of Wilshire, which, though still overpriced, is plenty costly.  First, though, I plan to go to Bryn Mawr, the right side of the tracks, to check out my beloved Alma Mater.  It probably served me better than my actual one, except in the way of material provided, and this nest across from the horrible buildings that are going up all over for the people so rich they don't actually live here.  What a world! What a world! as the wicked witch who was probably a good person in real life said in The Wizard of Oz, in a time when everything bad wasn't made into a musical.