Monday, March 13, 2006

A Farewell to That Summer-- and Maureen

In my extreme youth, when I wanted nothing so desperately as to write for the theater, Freddy Sadoff of the Actors Studio introduced me to Janice Mars. Janice had a boite on Sixth Avenue, The Baq Room, where she sang in her angry,irresistible voice, and wanted one of my songs, 'Sex',from my Cole Porter manque period. She took me to sing it for "a friend"who had an apartment in the Carnegie Hall building, and as we went down the corridor came the cry "Ehhhh, Janice!"-- in the unmistakeable voice that had called out 'Stellll---a!' So there he was, at that moment the epitome of male beauty and all there was to excite longing in a teenager in love with performers. I sang my song for Marlon Brando in a shaking voice, while he played Janice's chest as if it were bongos as accompaniment. When I finished singing, he mumbled "Not bad. Tell me about yourself,kid." For one of the few times in my life, I had a hard time finding words, and just managed to get out that I went to Bryn Mawr. He immediately trilled,a la Katharine Hepburn "Ahhhhhhhhhhh. Barynnnnn Mawahrrr." Somehow it made it humiliating to be going there.
But when Janice invited me to the Falmouth Playhouse that summer, where she would be appearing with him in 'Arms and the Man'(he was directing,and playing Sergio,) I was there. My roommate that summer was Maureen Stapleton, who may well have been the finest actress of her generation, which is, alas, as of today, the generation that is no more. I was standing in line at Ralph's getting things for my St.Patrick's Day housewarming, when the TV at the checkout stand that offers cooking tips for shoppers ran a line across the bottom that Maureen was dead, at 80.
She was still quite young that summer, playing with Sam Levene and Wally Cox in Three Men on a Horse. I was being teased by Marlon, as I was very much a chub, and unable to eat in his presence, so he asked me "You on a diet, kid?" at which point Maureen said "Shut up,Natural Beauty." In the room we shared she said that night "Nobody knows what it means to be unhappy unless they weighed a hundred and eighty-two in High School," which I did,and she, apparently, had too. She had also been seduced by her parish priest before it was fashionable(and an aberration, I guess, a young girl) and so had her faith shattered, along with, I would guess,any chance of a happy relationship with men. I knew her when she was married to Max, and when a really good playwright loved her but she drove him away. I was with her the morning after she won her Academy Award for 'Reds,' when her room-- not a suite-- at the Beverly Wilshire was littered with champagne bottles, and I dragged her to see my ob/gyn because she hadn't been for years and I wanted her to live a long time.
Over those years she and I had kept up a warm connection. She and Janice had been roommates in NY when they were first starting out, and rumors were they had been each other's great love. But mostly they fought for the rest of their lives, and when Janice went to see her that last time in Massachussetts, where Maureen was hiding out -- to be close to her grandchildren she said, but no one was sure how often her daughter let her see them, --they had a terrible blow-up: Janice left and didn't speak to her for the rest of her life, which was not to be long. All of this was punctuated with interaction with Marlon,who'd been Janice's lover early in their game,and then paid for her analysis to help her get over him,and who despised Maureen's drinking, but continued to love and admire her as a friend. Maureen said Marlon's children had such tragic lives because he'd set no example, and Janice said Maureen was a fine one to talk. He called Janice when she made a CD of the album he'd kept in his desk since the '60s to tell her she was not a good singer... Brandoesque pause... she was "a great singer." He wanted her to go on the internet to plug her album but she didn't understand the internet, so they ended their conversation with a 'Fuck You!' 'No,fuck you!' SLAM. But they spoke to each other again and in that last conversation, Marlon told Janice he intended to live to 125. "Why would you want to?" Marlon:"Out of Curiosity." Not long after that Janice died,and I had a really strong feeling Marlon would follow, as there was no one around to keep him honest-- at least as honest as he managed to be having thrown himself away.
And then there was no one left but Maureen. I called her from time to time and she thanked me, but was always drunk. The last time I'd seen her, years ago in the Hamptons, she was drinking two-fisted, a red wine in each hand. But I have earlier memories, visions of the great, dear, damaged, funny woman she was. One night, on the phone, weeping, because her son was giving her a bad time. "It's hard to be seventeen," I said." Said Maureen:"it's harder being 44." One day, as we ate lunch at one of those almost sidewalk cafes on Upper Broadway, her face was transmuted into light as she looked out the window and caught sight of-- like a child, captivated, murmuring:"Balanchine."
For a while in there somewhere she wanted to do my musical-- I have a tape of her singing "New York City', hardly able to breathe. But she was a trouper when she wasn't loaded. And somehow inoffensive when she was, because her nature was so sweet, demure beneath the sometimes raucous disguise. She took off her dress once on 80th Street,in the doorway of the Dry Cleaners, because it needed cleaning. I sort of sheltered her from anyone passing by being able to see, and got her to put it back on,told her she might really want to give it to him when she was wearing something else. She accepted that might be a good idea.
Brilliantly gifted. Totally guileless. A darling woman. The end of the line for that summer.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

GRIEF: Or How I learned to stop Suffering and Love Disappointment

I remember some years ago, when I was in the extremity of my Wu Wu, a spiritual belief somewhere between my cousin Susie and Shirley MacLaine, in other words all things are possible, and who knows if, and how can you disallow that maybe? At the time I was heavily into reincarnation,and the Founders spinning in their graves because of Richard Nixon, and they were going to get himour in time for the Bicentennnial and it DID happen. But along with all that I read a book by Louise Hay, called 'You Can Heal Your Life,' which had in its pages what all afflictions meant, and how various parts of the body were aches in the spirit, or fears, like lower back pain was concern about money and almost everyone I knew had that: the concern,and the pain.
When Don got lung cancer, I understood within a heartbeat that he, who had stopped smoking eight years before, was grieving. The lungs are grief, wrote Louise Hay,and I knew without question that was it in his case. He had lost the thing he loved best after his family, and that was the career he hoped for, that career, producing television, which he would have done excellent well-- I saw him in action in London, and nobody could have done it better or funnier or more supportively,because if there was one thing he knew how to do it was deal with talent, so when he produced the pilot we did with Michael Caine, and a charlady(which Michael Caine's mother had been),and a Brit revolutionary,and Jaye P.Morgan and me being hostesses,it was the best it could have been under anyone's instruction. He was a first rate television producer, but my success with The Pretenders had obliterated him. "Now that your wife has such a big success," they said when they called him into the office of America's best-loved family show(no names) "you won't need the money anymore," and fired him. Short of castration, there wasn't much more they could have done. And for years he went on, hoping, limping,imagining, pretending, that the day would come. When it didn't,he got lung cancer.
I am writing this because Christopher Reeves darling wife just died of lung cancer, and as she didn't smoke, they don't understand why. I understand perfectly. As hard as she worked before his death and after for stem cell research, she hit a wall. She lost the person she loved most, and then she lost the fight to make his loss into a win. And she grieved so deeply she couldn't breathe.
This is a message to all of you I love: TRY NOT TO GRIEVE. Punch pillows, yell into canyons, walk or swim till you're exhausted. Every loss that we have can be transmuted. Every fight that we seem to lose can be moved onto a different battlefield where in some unanticipated way we can triumph. The secret is to stay alive as long as we can. Certainly longer than George W. Bush

Monday, March 06, 2006

It was the Best of Oscars and the Worst of Oscars

Thirty-six years ago(how it is possible?) when I was really caught up in the glitzy underbelly of this business,(ego, a hunger for recognition, which in Hollywood meant publicity) I had a bestseller and arguably the world's best host for a husband. So Don and I gave the first Mocking the Oscar party in our house on Rembert Lane, and because it was Vietnam and aware people hated Bob Hope and John Wayne, everybody came to our house. The invitations read 'The Mitchell Academy of Arts and Games,' they were beautifully engraved(black tie optional) and those who didn't realize it was a spoof, buoyed by the fact that Ruth Berle, the "bellweather" of Beverly Hills society as she was to be described in the forthcoming article in Time Magazine, accepted, so so did they.
Shirley MacLaine was there, and Lee Marvin, who'd won the previous year, and a whole slew of celebs you can see for yourself in Vanity Fair's Oscar Book around page 40 something, the 42nd Academy Awards,1970.
If you open the book very wide to look at the splendid picture of the party, in the crack of the binding is a young woman with a dazzling smile and eyes brimming over with bright intelligence and humor. That is Sandy Burton. Sandy was with Time Magazine in LA at the time, and went to my hairdresser, Dusty Fleming. As he was cutting her he said "I'm going to this great party." Sandy, whom I didn't know, called and asked if she could cover it for Time,and I think I all but siphoned her through the phone, I was so elated. The piece was sharp and delightful, as Sandy was, and she became,if not my closest friend, certainly my favorite one. She was so clever she succeeded in getting Carlos Castenada, a metaphysician who ate peyote to enhance his spiritual insights, on the cover of that staid and rationalpublication. Right after that she became the first woman bureau chief of Time, and transferred to Boston, her farewell present to me a map to Carlos' Power Spot, the place where sorcerers go to renew their strength, in the Malibu mountains, and the parting instruction"Preserve your Marriage, because the women in this business who can maintain a career and keep up a family can be counted on the finger of one finger." I had to listen, because it was Sandy who'd said it, she was so reasonable and smart,and I had more or less lost my footing what with The Pretenders being a big hit,and the truth that Don was punished for it, as there was little or no tolerance in this town for a man whose wife was more successful, so he was suffering, and I,who have a tendency to hide my eyes at the sight of blood, was ready to flee. But because of Sandy's mandate, I stayed, probably the best thing I ever did from the How Do You Want to Look Back at Your Life POV.
Then Sandy went to Paris for Time and I visited her there,and when they made a movie of mine in the South of France she turned us on to St, Tropez("everybody says 'St.Tropez c'est finis'," she said,"but you'll like it.") And we did, the whole family, Robert in his Bar Mitzvah(which he hated) year, Madeleine at 15 pissed off she wasn't in Hawaii with the rest of her friends,and Sandy coming down for a special weekend, where we walked for hours on an uneven beach and she asked me how you jump the barrier into fiction, and congratulated me on the only novel of mine I think she ever read, Marriage, and said it was literature, the most important praise I have ever received, I loved her so, because of how very smart and no nonsense she was.
Then she transferred to Hong Kong, where I went to stay with her after Don died, and lived in her apartment while she was in the Phillipines bonding with and strengthening the Aquino family-- she had been with Ninoy on the plane that brought him back to Manila, and recorded his assassination when they wouldn't let her off the plane, becoming the chief witness in the trial of General Ver. (You can read her wonderful book, The Impossible Dream, about the Aquino-Marcos rivalry.) Then she was in Beijing, in the midst of Tiannammen Square, and in Burma, and in elephant stampedes, all kinds of dangers from which she escaped unscathed.
But a couple of years ago she went to Bali, the most peaceful place on earth it was then, to write a book, with a companion I will not describe or name. And two years ago at this time, if you remember from pieces I wrote from Bali, where I was when it happened, she 'fell' in her bathroom and 'hit her head on the toilet', he told me. The houseboys wiped up the blood, and it is on the books as "an unsolved homicide", but the autopsy report in the Jakarta Post said there were ten contusions on her skull, a cranial fracture with a blunt instrument,and what looked like strangulations marks. My friend Julia Gajcak, who was PR for a long time at Four Seasons Jimbaran, said "If you want to murder someone, do it in Bali."
But all this is another story. Or perhaps a novel. The point is, I think, that no Academy Awards I ever watch can match the evening that was,with the rooms divided up into Reformed(talking and eating and watching) Conservative (watching and a little talking) and Orthodox(no talking at all,) with a Sabrett stand(a real one,imported from NY) in the back yard,a klieg light and a red carpet down the walk tp out house, a young friend in a Roxy Ushers uniform at the front door, and endless hors d'ouevres, created by me for days before, empanadas and fried wontons and mini-bagels with smoked salmon(Sandy wrote lox, her only inaccuracy.)
Last year I struggled mightily to go to the Vanity Fair party and succeeded in being invited, and hated almost every minute except the one where I got Dennis Hopper to be actually gracious, and told James Wood he had made my cousin Susie very happy a long time ago, sucking her toes as they went to New Haven to see Uta Hagen in something, and he said "I remember her. A little redhead. She was adorable. Say hello to her for me."
I wish I could. I wish I could say hello to Sandy. But I watched last night by myself, much the best way,it turned out. I had so many interesting ghosts in the room.