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.

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