Saturday, July 02, 2016

ARE WE STILL FREE?

    So it is 4th of July weekend, the celebration of our nation's Freedom, which may be coming to an end with the ascendancy of Donald Trump, the blatant fascist and closet ignoramus.  I have just returned from the commemoration in Scottsdale for my daughter, Madeleine, looking teenagerly beauteous in the photo at her service, but actually fifty at her death, though still unnecessarily too soon.  But it was uplifting, in a dark way, to see the people there were who cared about her, not the least of whom was me.
     Madeleine, named after the woman fired from  the lead in my Broadway comedy that opened and closed with her birth, died under mysterious, ugly and cloudy circumstances in Scottsdale, Arizona, where she bolted seven coffees every morning at Starbuck's, worked out two hours every day but still, desperate, didn't find love.  My friend Ann Busby, who should have her picture in Wikipedia under the definition "friendship,"drove me there from LA and funneled all information back to me when it fell out of my head, and being a lawyer, siphoned out what would hold up under scrutiny after our meeting with the police.  To my relief, they were genuinely nice guys, a word I wouldn't usually use, but here it obtains.  Clear, direct, and having conducted what appears to be a thorough investigation, except for the drug reports. That will take six months to be completed, there is apparently so much of that kind of death in Arizona.
     I guess Madeleine went to college there because she didn't have the equipment or longing to aspire higher, and my father had been mayor of Tucson, moved there during my teenage years because the woman my mother introduced him to as she was sure Selma, the second wife, would kill him.  But instead, her allergies drove them to the desert version of greatness.  He was less than a wonderful man, but apparently they didn't see that in Tucson, as I am fearful we might not be able to see it in America. Or maybe we just no longer care.
     So because Lew Davis, Lew, the Mayor, as my friend Mel Brooks called him, had standing, Madeleine went there to college.  But she was less than a devoted student, though my colleague from graduate writing school at Stanford who taught her at the U of A told me she had talent, which, sadly, she didn't use, so busy was she questing for love. She married three times.  The first dumped her after little more than a year, once she had signed over her car; the second adored her but she didn't want him anymore until he had married someone else; and the third I never met but I know he'd had her arrested.  Not a pretty story, and certainly not one I would have written out of choice.  Or inspiration.
      When Madeleine was a little girl, I told her how much I loved her, how wonderful she was.  "Than why did you have Robert?" she asked me.
    I suppose that that is a question that resonates through the minds of many children.  It got a laugh at the Quaker Meeting I grieved for her at, and again at the memorial for Maddy, as her friends called her.  Not a nickname I would have chosen, but her life wasn't up to me, or it would have been better. 
     When her brother was born on the eve of my would-have-been-bigger-bestseller, had I had a better publisher, The Pretenders, my editor, a really smart man, Bob Gutwillig, sent me a telegram: "A boy! How marvelous!"  My mother said simply, cuttingly, as most of her judgments came, "Anyone could have a girl."
     I was so busy trying to pick us back up from my failed Broadway comedy, The Best Laid Plans,  an ill-chosen but ironically apt title, that I didn't really process how cruel, and untrue, that judgment was.  That I had gone to what is arguably the best college in the world, still for women only, Bryn Mawr, seemed beside the point.
The point was success, as it seems enduringly to be in America.  Scary.  And sad.
    My husband, Don Mitchell as he'd changed his name to, Miskie being too Jewish and Bronxy to be swallowable by my mother, Helen, born Finkelstein changed to Fink (I never have to make anything up) had lost his job as a television producer in New York just as we'd decided to put off having children.  But I found out the next day  I was already pregnant with Madeleine, as we were to name her as compensation to  Madlyn Rhue, the leading lady in my comedy, fired just before it opened, and I went into the hospital to give birth to my daughter.  To give you some idea of how much loyalty and love there was in the New York theatre world of 1966, the heads of several studios whom I considered really close friends, coming to  my hospital room to congratulate me the evening of her birth, were unreachable after the reviews.  The director, Paul Bogart, had been fired just before the opening, and Hilly Elkins, the producer, had brought in Arthur Storch, who didn't have a clue, and  kept changing everything, so everybody went up on their lines opening night.  Mel, married to Anne Bancroft, my close friend, for whom I'd written it, only to have her tell me she was doing The Devils, ("Well, who knew you would write a play in a week?" she'd said,)  taxied us back to the hospital that night.  Don and I had gotten to the theatre in time for the closing curtain, and the last laugh. Only it wasn't there.
     "Well, you had two things happen this week," Mel said.  "If one of them had to be less than perfect, if your child had been born with six toes and two noses... that would have been okay.  What mattered was the show."
     It was, like most of Mel's lines, funny.  But, sadly, in terms of New York and the theater world of the Sixties, the truth.  Mostly, as I remember,  I spent what was left of my youth trying to make up for America's greatest sin: failing.
     No one would return our calls.  I was still kind of chubby, so when I would pass people I knew on the street I would secrete myself behind telephone poles, imagining that would hide me.
    But Annie and Mel came over to visit. She read the reviews out loud, spitting at them.  I really loved her.  When you do life over in your mind, she plays the lead in my play, so I am a hit and my whole life is different.  But maybe not as interesting.
    But this is supposed to be about Madeleine, as her whole life should have been.  But wasn't.
    Don was without work, and I was limelight failed.  I had a friend in Carol Burnett, so I called her on the sly, and asked her to give Don work.  Her new show was starting in California.  So it was we left New York, and I no longer had to hide behind telephone poles.
    We stayed in the attic of Carol Burnett's guest house till we found a place to live.  When we did, the man who opened the door to rent it to us, turned out to be Les Colodny, the funny, self-promoting man who'd hired me in New York at NBC when I was twenty, as a comedy writer, and he ran the program of new talents that was just starting.  It was to audition for him that Eliott Kastner, --that is another saga-- had had me come back from Europe and sing my songs, to be hired on the spot, only to have Les and the writers he liked better go to Hollywood leaving me to be fired as the department fizzled though I had two or three musicals under my arm.  But that is several more stories, and this is supposed to be about Madeleine.  
     As Madeleine's life should have been. But apparently never really was.  So maybe her death can be.  I hope so.
   
     
      

Saturday, June 25, 2016

PLOT

    Plot was always the last thing I thought of, if at all.  It was being able to express myself, feeling through the ends of my fingers, the few I used, connecting with my characters as I connected with the keys that carried me along.  That anything would hinge on who did what never occurred to me.
     But yesterday I started to sort out maybe not exactly what had happened to my daughter Madeleine.  But only some of it.  I think.  I can't be really sure.  This much I know for sure: she is dead.  And 
somebody might have killed her.
      I got the most beautiful picture of her, recent, pulled together like a teenage model, sent me by her dearest friend, the sad way life works out, her own life pulled together many miles away. Sending me the loveliest picture of Madeleine, looking like the supermodel it would have made her happy to be. Only dead at just turned 50.  A bad dream.
    I had an actual bad dream last night, the first I have had, at least I am aware of having, where I didn't know anybody in it, or where I was: it was a museum, I think someplace like Philadelphia, only I have been in Philadelphia and this place was foreign to me.  Filled with uptight, aloof people, who didn't know who I was, and didn't care.  And I was inarticulate, and frightened.  Knowing nothing, most especially why I was there, or where 'there' was.  And then I realized I was dreaming, and woke, abruptly, remembering Madeleine was dead.
    My poor little girl.  This is all so hard, and hard to believe.  Europe shattering, Trump re-surfacing yet again, and Madeleine dead.

Friday, June 24, 2016

MADELEINE

Strangely, I was in my drugstore in Beverly Hills when I received news of my daughter’s death.  She was just turned fifty years old, and when last I saw her she was really pretty.
     She’d had her nose fixed when she was still a student at Beverly High, which most of the girls who didn’t consider themselves pretty enough—almost all of them—did.  Disappointed with the job her surgeon had done, cute but not chiseled enough—she nonetheless held her impression of herself high—or so it seemed.  My husband was still alive, so she had her protector and maybe that helped keep her out of trouble.  Or so I thought, but then… what did I know?  I was so busy being a writer.
      It seems I am still or again like that now.  Waiting for my son to come pick me up outside the doctor’s office and pharmacy where I found myself, sort of providentially, when I got the sorrowful news, I have my Macbook in my lap, and, strangely less than emotional, am just writing.  Weird that I should be back in Beverly Hills, in front of his office when I get the news. Walked here this morning after waking at four-thirty, seven thirty New York time, back yesterday, in time to be here for news of Madeleine’s death.
     Madeleine.  Born at the tippy-top, nearly, of our marriage.  A show opening on Broadway at the same time as our daughter was being born, my husband associate producer as a way of salvaging his career, imploded from the beginning.  Poor Don.  Sweetest man in the world, not easy coming from the Bronx.  Had the option of an easier life had he chosen being crooked.
     But as he was honest, and not self-aggrandizing, he might have undersold himself.  So in Hollywood he was doomed, from the beginning.


      Maybe Madeleine was, too.  When she was born, her Grandma Helen, which she wasn't to be called, lest she sound like she was old, said: "She has pretty eyes.  The rest we can fix.
      And because it was Beverly Hills, we did.  Not always by the right people.  But she seemed satisfied, except for how gorgeous she wasn’t exactly, in spite of it all.  And how easy it wasn’t.
       I was just back from New York, sitting in the forecourt of my doctor’s office, when I got the terrible news.  The phone rang. It was the banker who handles Madeleine’s inheritance from her grandfather, who’d been Mayor of Tucson.  “I don’t know how
to do this,” the banker said, his throat audibly closing.  “I’ve never had to do this before.” 
     I thought he was going to tell me she’d been arrested.  My mind leapt to everything I would have to do to try and make the sentence less grave.  Instead, he told me she was dead.
     Somehow, it seemed a touch less terrible.  That, apparently, is how it is in Southern California. Death is somehow a touch less horrible than a child’s being in terrible trouble.  Or at least it appears that way until you get a chance to think about it, to sort it out.  If death can be sorted out.
     


Monday, June 06, 2016

NAME DROP: Doris Day

    When I first arrived in Hollywood, I was able to drop the biggest name of the day: Doris.  I had met the singer and movie star(#1 in her radiance) when I kid-sat her son, Terry, in London, having met their traveling troupe in the south of France, where I'd gone with my mother, who'd come to Europe to check on me, convinced I could be up to no good, singing in the Mars Club as I had been.  "Is she a white girl?" Gene Kelly asked someone when he heard where I'd been performing in Paris.
     Terry, Doris' boy, was a terrible kid, but probably all eleven or twelve year old boys would have seemed terrible to me at the time. I was just past twenty,  considering myself a grown-up.  The greatest star of her time, Doris Day was sweet, kind and kind of shy.  I could think of no better way to ingratiate myself with her than to help with Terry, who was bored, restless, and an obvious pain.  
    "Westminster Abbey.  Who needs it?" he'd say.  "Let's go to Wimpy's and have a Wimpyburger." 
     Doris was making a movie, The Man Who Knew Too Much, so I had the dubious privilege of caring for Terry,  taking him around to the various obligatory sights, to all of which he sneered "Who Needs It?"  I ended up writing a song with that title, that I tried to sell her husband, Marty Melcher, whom I imagined/hoped would recognize my talent and make me into the new Irving Berlin, whose same birthday I had. "Double A Ascap stuff," Marty said, listening to my songs.  But he expressed no interest in advancing them, and bought nothing.  I don't think I really expected him to.  It was enough I could hang out on the periphery of Doris' life, when she went underwear shopping with Audrey Hepburn.
     But when we all ended up back in Hollywood, Doris invited me to Sunday brunch at the Bel-Air home of her lawyer, Jerry Rosenthal, a smart, funny, powerful man who became my friend and ally, which served me well until he went to jail.  But that wasn't for a number of years.  And in the interim at his home I met arguably America's greatest lyricist, Yip Harburg, a darling man, writer of "Over the Rainbow." At that time it was my hope to have a career as a songwriter, so the joyful fact that Yip liked me, and his wife, Eddie, a tough, smart woman, took me under her very strong wing, was a bonanza.  They were my advocates, protecting and connecting me once back in New York.  Except for the one very Leftist evening they invited me to, they showed me nothing but kindness. 
      Eddie got mad at me, though, when I turned up with Don who was to become my husband.  It had been her intention to connect me with her son(from a previous marriage.) But they ended up the most loving elders in my history.  Probably the happiest experience of my young life was walking through Central Park with Yipper, singing him songs from the musical I was writing,  having him make approving comments.  "As good as any ever written," he said after one.  And then, after the last "I wish I'd written that." 
      The friendship with Doris never blossomed into what I'd hoped would be the musical reality.  But I'd had the lilting lift of the friendship with her in my early days in the business.  And Jerry became friends with my mother, whom he called all the time from jail, collect.  She always accepted.  He had gotten into a feud with a judge he considered himself smarter than.  But the judge was the one with the gavel and the clout.  So he sentenced him to jail, from which he called my mother collect.  At one point, finally, he was released, and took up sad residence on a less than lovely street in Beverly Hills, the wrong side of Santa Monica Boulevard. He lived a very long life, the end of it, disgraced.
      He was a very smart man, brilliant, really, who outsmarted himself.  But I loved him.  I never became a big enough success in the songwriting business for him to in any way screw me. He was the first  entertainment lawyer to make himself into a powerful corporation, planning what he'd intended to make (almost literally) his own country, where he'd be able to deal in his own favor with taxes.  I saw a plan in his office of a mountain he'd outfitted, renamed, circled with roads, and dotted with outposts.  
     Many were those that he'd mulcted.  Ross Hunter, one of the most influential filmmakers of the day, whom Jerry had represented and incorporated, got tears in his eyes when he spoke of him. And Kirk Douglas raged. It was not unlike the Mel Brooks TV comedy, about a crook named Mr. Big.  "If only he had turned his badness to goodness," the former partner says.  "He could have really been... Mr. Big."

Sunday, June 05, 2016

SHAKESPEARE'S BIRTHDAY

So like the good English major I was, fortunate to be still alive on this, the Bard's birthday, I decided to celebrate him by going to SHE LOVES ME, the musical I most wanted to see-- after Hamilton, of course, for which I have a ticket in June, box-office rated at a fortune that can be apparently charged legitimately when a civilization, so-called, is impressed (and guilty) enough.
      I'd forgotten to go-- rather, I hadn't looked at the ticket that was here in my apartment, until the day had passed.  To my pleasurable joy, I went today, gave them the overlooked and forgotten ticket, and they let me wait until curtain time and then let me in.
     I'd gone to the show the first time in my youth, and seen sort-of-good-friend Jack Cassidy, a genuinely gifted cad, which he often played and well, in the role of the gifted cad,-- couldn't have been much of a stretch-- he won a Tony.  I still miss Jack, as I miss all those super-talented buddies, at least I thought they were, who were my friends in those days when I thought my future was the musical theatre.  That was before Kermit Bloomgarden, who seemed at the time, the most honorable and best-respected producer in the-ah-tre, took all the money that had been raised for the musical of Mark Twain's Million Pound Note I had written with the gifted composer Phil Springer, and put it in a Mel Brooks' show that failed, across the street, (Broadway,) from where ours would have been.  I think it was called Nowhere to Go but Up, an ill-chosen and completely inaccurate title.
     You didn't sue a producer in those days, especially when he had brought you Diary of Anne Frank, and was considered a Great Man.  That was before you learned, or at least I started to, that people screwed you even when they didn't the way you wanted them to when you wanted them to.
     I note a certain note of bitterness in me, pointless and more than way overdue, pointless since almost all who are involved in my disappointments and youthful betrayals are dead, probably the best revenge of all.  Jack Cassidy, who I really loved as you loved gifted people in those eager and chubby little days, when crazy in love with the musical theatre, died quite young in his Hollywood apartment, having burned himself to death.  Alexis Smith, a gifted actress, beautiful and rarely witty, said of Jack's death, "Well, he always was flamboyant."
   So it was nice, with all this recollection,  to see SHE LOVES ME, especially since they let me in free after everyone was seated.  They found a place for me in the second row.  I imagine that Shakespeare would have been pleased that they were that considerate of a writer, even though she wasn't in his class, albeit majoring in him at Bryn Mawr.
     I need to blow a kiss, hoping it might carry into the Afterworld if there is one, to the agent who was soooo good to me in my (it really was,) youth, Bobby Helfer.  I might have written about him before, but I just want to make sure, because he was a soul like you always hope will be in the tales about Show Biz, but rarely is, because that kind of person is rare indeed.  He was the agent at MCA who signed me when I was 20, even though everyone at the agency told him not to, because he couldn't get as much money for me as someone like Les Baxter, more noted though maybe not as talented-- I really was.  I can say that with no embarrassment or fear of seeming vain, because it is as though that very young Gwen died a long time ago, the talents on which that life danced being so long unused and/or unexpressed.  But Bobby was that rare and wondrous being who did because he Believed.  
     He committed suicide on his 42nd birthday by taking 42 sleeping pills.
     Hey, Shakespeare wrote most of his great plays when he was in his twenties.  Just to take it to a lighter level.
    I am of a happier heart than I was because of Nick Corley, the great-hearted actor director who was and is so kind, who may have set me onto a more positive path.  As I said, and I hope, we shall see.  There's a morning dove in my window box as I've written more than once now.  I have a picture of her with her two eggs that I would put online if I knew how.  Tomorrow to the Apple Store.

CARY GRANT

Still my favorite name to drop, after a long lifetime, Cary Grant said "Hate will keep you alive longer than love will."  So I believe Donald Trump may live forever.
    There seems to be absolutely no secret subtext in his rants.  It is all right out there: loathing, loathing and loathing.  That the seemingly least insane of his cohorts should have endorsed him, is the saddest demonstration of where the Republicans have gone.  That my father, Lew the Mayor, as my friend Mel Brooks used to call him, should be relegated to the Afterlife at this moment seems the harshest punishment for those whose greatest joy was inflicting pain.  That seems a harsh pronumciamento on my part, but apparently it comes from someplace really deep, where I assume my subconscious originates.
     Having just come from a luxuriant lunch, brain-wise as opposed to food, with my favorite friend from my political youth, Alice Hartman later Henkin, I am in a state of complacent terror at what is possibly going to happen to our world, as initiated by our country, at the possible victory of Trump, originally Trumpf, which gives you some idea of how it should really be pronounced, with a sneer and dismissal of humanity included.  If he wins, it will be a triumphf. 
      Alice was the smartest political mind in our class, the one with whom I watched the Army-McCarthy hearings upstairs in whatever that room was in the Deanery when there was a new TV of the day that actually played during the day.  And we suffered and sorrowed over what could still actually have happened in spite of how crazy we knew McCarthy was.  That in one lifetime there could actually have emerged, risen, and possibly triumphed someone who was not only crazier but also managed to be more foolish, though in a far more theatrical way, is, from the directorial standpoint, unthinkable.
But only of course if you are capable of thinking, which, apparently the Republicans are not.  Wanting only to win, they do not seem to see how much we have to lose.
      America.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

NABOKOV LIVES ON!

So I have lived a lot of years past Lolita, and she, it, and the vast magnificence that is the U.S. of A. have made the front of The New York Times Sunday Travel section,  just as I have come to the time in my life when I am trying to sort out all the experiences, great and abusive, that have gone into making the today Me.  Prime among them, if my mind is open and my heart is full, is Lolita itself.
   'Twas at a party I went to one Hollywood weekend when I came down from Stanford where I was doing graduate work, that I met Stanley Kubrick, the by now mythic director though probably forgotten by most or at least you need to be reminded.  He was deeply dark-eyed and with his blossoming wife Christiane.  I said to the just-met Stanley that she was the most beautiful pregnant woman I had ever seen.  He said "What did you think I would marry?" as though we had been friends forever, as it now seemed we would be.  He had just been announced as having the movie rights for LOLITA, the greatest literary sensation in eons.
     To my joy and protracted adolescent delight-- I think I was twenty-five, but I had gone back to graduate school to study with Wallace Stegner, whom I admired, not knowing him, a state that was to continue even though they took my enrollment money not bothering to tell me he wouldn't be there to teach that year-- Kubrick came up from Hollywood to visit me, taking me on a boat ride around that perilous San Francisco bay.  "I'm in terrible trouble," he said.  "I've hired Nabokov to do the screenplay of Lolita, and he can't write dialogue.  You're the best writer of dialogue in America..."  I had given him the manuscript to read of the novel I'd submitted as my Master's Thesis for my graduate degree.  So cosseted and complimented, I agreed, joyfully, to come down to Hollywood and be in the closet, as the expression still went then about things beside sex, writing the screenplay.
   Paranoia was one of Stanley's leading characteristics, so I was allowed to tell no one I was even in town, holed up in an apartment motel on Sunset Boulevard, all my dinners taken with Stanley and Christiane, not that bad because I loved them, and Christiane was a good cook.  But as I click-clacked away on my little portable typewriter-- I began to grow somewhat uneasy.  Stanley spoke with luminous eyes of a scene where Humbert was, in his vision, to talk excitedly, though belittlingly,  of a ten-year-old who had polio.  I said to him, "Stanley, you can't have him putting down a little girl with polio."  And he said, "No, you don't get it.  He's thinking he's never fucked a ten year old with polio before."
    "Stanley..." I said.  "How do you see this movie?"
    "It's a love story," he said.
    "Oh," I said.  "I thought it was a comedy."  Right after that, I realized I shouldn't be writing it, stepped away, and lost touch.
     Still, I loved him and Christiane, and when Don and I were going to get married I wanted to ask them to the wedding.  So I said to Don we should go to the opening day of Dr. Strangelove, that Stanley would be there, counting the house.  "Stop being a writer," Don said.
     But coming down from from the balcony after the 4 o'clock screening, I heard 'Click, click, click, click, click,' And there stood Stanley, counting.  "We just broke the house record for the Criterion," he said.
    So we picked up the friendship, and they came to the wedding at the Plaza.  Christiane brought us a glass vase from Tiffany's.  German, she was shocked at the price, which she informed me, while giving it to me, was $29.95. (To let you know how long ago it was the same vase is now $400.)
     Don at the time was working in television at WOR TV, producing the first Jets games.  Stanley watched in a corner of the reception.  "You should keep the camera on the line," Stanley told Don.  "Don't follow the ball.  The line is where the real action is."
    "Stanley," said Don.  "You let me run a credit at the end, 'Directed by Stanley Kubrick,' I'll keep the camera anywhere you say."
     We lost touch soon after that and the Kubricks went back to Europe.  A few years after that, we were living in England, with our by then little children.  Visiting the Gary Smiths, who were friends, I knew that the Kubrick's home was behind theirs.  So I took my tiny progeny, Madeleine 4 and Robert 2, to the stone castle next door.
   I rang the bell.  It tolled, big time.  Slowly the doors creaked open.  There was the sound of dogs, and two giant creatures snarled, pulled at leashes.
     "Stanley?" I said, into the darkness.  "Stanley?"
     He recognized my voice.  "Gwen?" he said.  "I'd ask you in, but the dogs will go for the children."
  
       I have written that tale (tail?) before, but it is now so long ago that I hope it is synthesized,  that my style has smoothed.  In any case, I am finally trying to pull all my adventures together while my hands and my mind still work.  I remember the night I was watching the Academy Awards and that little Italian, I think he was, who won, sorrowed over the loss of Stanley, who had, unbeknownst to me, just died.  I was sad of course, though in my view, his movies had become painfully slow.  But perhaps that was just the one with Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise.  
       Still I understand at very long last, how lucky I was to have known the people I did.  And though it has become a world of Trumps and Tweets, maybe there are still some who like words. And memories.