Friday, January 26, 2007

Broadway Baby

I had a day yesterday of true spiritual uplift. I spent the day with one of the last remaining reasons to admire show business as many of us did when we were just starting out in life and thought there were, as in the Irving Berlin(we have the same birthday) lyric, no people like show people: Betty Garrett.
Betty was a musical comedy star on Broadway in the 40s--had come to New York when she was sixteen, mother in tow, got a scholarship from Martha Graham, learned modern dance, sang with a fierce but feminine energy, did a couple of during-the-war musicals, broke out as a major star in 'Call Me Mister' singing 'South America Take it Away,' and was signed by MGM. She married Larry Parks, who became the biggest movie star in the world in 1946 playing Al Jolson in 'The Jolson Story,' and then was shot down, his career destroyed by his appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee. You can read a better account than I would be able to give you in Victor Navasky's Naming Names. But one thing Victor never knew: Larry and two other actors, Charles Korvin and Robert Shane had done a report for the Screen Actors Guild when Reagan was its president addressing the question of whether actors were earning a living wage. Even factoring in the millionaires like Jimmy Cagney and Fred MacMurray, the conclusion was that they couldn't. Reagan, on receiving their report, blustered "That's nonsense!" and threw it in the wastebasket(something Betty contends he was later to do about the poor in America.) From that time on, Larry believed, Ronnie had it in for him. So although he never knew for sure who targeted him for the Committee, he had his suspicions.
Anyway, I missed all that, and met the still handsome and tall, smart, genial and only a little visibly broken Larry Parks when I first came to Hollywood at the end of the 50s. One of my cohorts from the Mars Club in Paris was singing in Ye Little Club in Beverly Hills; Betty was at the next table, and we became friends(she said to her escort about me "Is she picking us up?"). Larry warmed to me(and visa versa) and gave me my first screenplay assignment. Every Friday evening I would go to their house with pages, and he'd ask "Whose picture is on the $100 bill?" and I'd answer "Benjamin Franklin," at which point he'd hand me two of them, crisp new ones. It thrilled me at the time, someone I admired actually reading what I was writing, since no one at NBC, the only job I'd ever had, briefly and frustratingly when I was just twenty, even looked at anything I turned in(a sit-com a day, a musical a week.)
Then I opened at the Purple Onion on Sunset, doing my songs, and Betty brought in Robert Kirsch, the book critic for the LA Times, from whom she was taking a writing course at UCLA. I told him a few of my stories, encounters with Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Tony Perkins, my then love of the moment who I didn't know was gay, (I was a nice Jewish girl, and it was the Fifties.) Kirsch said "You ought to write a novel." So the next morning I got up and started Naked in Babylon, and the rest is not quite history.
Larry died too young, a victim, I think, of all that had happened to him and all that had failed to happen after his debasement, gifted man that he was. So when Don died, too young, too, I went to see Betty, who was then in the hospital, and she said to me "Now you must do what you wouldn't have done if Don was alive." So I went and bought a hat(he'd said I didn't have a 'hat face,') and some perfume(he didn't like perfume on me) and then started to travel(he was a homebody) and went to visit Gore Vidal(Don had said to me once, "It only proves what a pervert you are, that you enjoy the company of Gore Vidal.") So 'twas Betty who set my footsteps in place yet again.
She is going to be 88 her next birthday, and says she won't think of herself as old as long as she can get into her underwear standing up. She also teaches a workshop in Musical Comedy, is the spine of Theater West, does several benefits a year, and tap dances. She took up tap dancing when she was sixty, and was tap dancing in her kitchen, naked, a few weeks ago when her son and daughter-in-law walked in on her. There is not an ounce of guile in her, or anger, or regret, and naked tap dancer or no, she is more genuine lady than eccentric.
So whether or not my path has been rocky, it certainly feels like I've been guided to and by some remarkable souls. She said to me as we went into Barnes & Noble that she had luck in the beginning, and though there was a sag to her career in the middle, she feels gratified that so much is happening for her later in life. Still tiny and trim, her face exactly the same, except for the wrinkles that disappears when she smiles, which is often, her eyes still a pale, lively bright blue, though dimmed from her side by macular degeneration that doesn't keep her from reading more than most people who can see unimpaired, she is a gentle pistol. She is happily convinced that my career will echo hers, and be liveliest towards the finale. That would be nice. Rather than leaving it to Destiny, (or maybe she is a part of the Destiny she won't leave it to) she is trying to help me rescusitate(sp?) my musical.
What a spirit. And to think Dickens had only Tiny Tim to inspire and
bless us, every one.
BULLETIN: Lest you think I am sidestepping my role as observer of our eras' foibles in favor of nostalgia, rest easy. I am right on top of the lamb scandal front-paged in yesterday's NYTimes. There was a picture of two male sheep trying to look innocent. Scientists (what were they looking at?) have concluded that eight percent of rams ram other rams rather than ewes, so there's homolambsexuality in the flock. But once more into the breech: as soon as I finish this, I have a telephone interview with Keith Martin, the ecologically conscientious man I met at the Gourmet Institute, who gave up his career as a broker to start this higher level of sheep raising or whatever you call it(I'll find out) and I have passed on to him the intelligence(is it?) that there's hanky-panky among the lamby-pambys. No wonder the meat was so tender.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Alas, Not-so-Poor Yorick

Art Buchwald has passed, via his own video, announcing to The New York Times that he had just died. They had the grace and sense to put his obit on the front page, as funny and sad man that he was, he did make a difference, making people laugh or at least smile consistently with his newspaper column, attacking the great so that, as the Times put it, they shed no blood.
His column in the Herald-Tribune was already a major success when I went to Paris straight out of Bryn Mawr in the 50s, and opened in the Mars Club on the rue Henri-Etienne, singing the songs I had written that had been such a hit at the Junior Prom. That whole serendiptious adventure had been set into motion by Maya Angelou, not yet hoist by her own petard into grande-dameness, performing in that after-hours club, and saying to me, because I was so obviously intimidated by the orange lights and the black(it was okay to call them then) people, 'Hoh-nee, you can get up and be bigger than anyone here.' So I went on the slightly raised platform that served as a stage and sang, just like in the movies, I was hired. When the boss, a mean, fat white American named Ben, with a fatter French wife who slammed the cash register all during performances, said "You got a job!" I wired my mother 'I'm singing in a night club in Paris.' She wired me back: 'Come home immediately.' But of course I didn't, and stayed, my ambition sizzling, my anticipation of stardom keeping me going, because Art Buchwald was going to come and write about me.
That beneficence had been promised me by the Paris Variety critic, Gene Moskowitz, who had thrown flowers at me in his 'New Acts' column, and my friend Gaby Smith, who worked for Life. (Is she still alive, Howard? I know the magazine isn't, now but a thin slab of shiny paper inserted in-between Real Estate and ads on Sunday, nothing the same but the ghostly cover, a spectre of vanished glory, glossily hyping Patrick Dempsey.) Mosk had pronounced me "the last innocent in Paris," and Gaby, who I'd met on the Ile de France coming over, with her gifted painter husband Kimber, who later went mad because Sam Francis became a super-star, dripping colors down a canvas, wanted to do a story on me in 'Life' or 'Time.' But they had to pick it up from another news source, they couldn't just discover me themselves. So Gene told Art about me, and Art said he'd come and do a column.
Ben, the boss, knew about that, so would regularly reduce my salary, knowing I couldn't quit, because I was Waiting for Art, the eager publicity-seeker's version of Godot. I wasn't getting paid very much, and, as part of my duties, had to hustle drinks from approving customers who liked my act, and asked me to join them. Pimm's #1 Cup, I remember, was the most expensive thing on the menu, so it was that I was elbowed to order. I think I was saved from alcoholism by the cucumbers. Anyway, I was down to about six or seven dollars a night in salary when the great moment finally came: there'd been a call from Art Buchwald to save him a table that night.
But at the last minute he went to Yugoslavia to write a piece about Porgy and Bess' goat. (There was a State Department tour of Porgy and Bess at the time, which is what Maya had been doing in Paris-- she was the lead dancer in the company.) So my great moment never came, and, shaved down to about $2.50 a performance, I quit.
Many years later, in Washington, I met Art, who couldn't have been more affable or apologetic when I told him of our lost history. He said I was much more articulate than the goat had been. And when I had my landmark libel suit, he was one of the high-profile writers quick to ally themselves with me. A really kind man.
After his wife died, when I was alone in New York, mutual friends from D.C. tried to fix us up. We had lunch at the Harvard Club, and he was palpably uncomfortable, not because the dialogue lay heavier than the food-- not much could have-- but because he had already been beset by his illness. Having already ushered out of this world someone I'd really loved, I shied away, even from becoming good friends.
But it was a treat to have pinballed around him, never really touching, but connecting with a ping from time to time. I can't say it's a great loss, because he was so present while he was here, and that' s the most any of us can do, the best that we can be. I remember most happily the column he wrote when he returned to Paris in the '80s, and asked his wife, looking at the menu: "Shall we have the white asparagus, or send our son to college?"

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Benjamin Franklin's Birthday

Today is Ben's birthday. It is also the actual birthday of Martin Luther King, but they changed his to give us a longer weekend, just as they changed the birthdays of Lincoln(Feb. 12) and George W.(the good one- Feb. 22) and ultimately consolidated them so department stores could have sales.
I have long celebrated this gentleman, knowing the lights wouldn't turn on without him, there would be no place to mail my letters, go for free borrowed books, and this country would have had a much less spiritual base-- yes, that's right. He was a spiritual man, a Rosacrucian(sp?) who believed in Reincarnation. I was sure he and the other Framers had come back during Nixon's time rather than simply whirl in their graves, to clean up the mess and get the country back in shape in time for the Bicentennial. And sure enough, the bad guys were toppled, and the republic endured. (I wonder what they're doing now, or if they've thrown up their ghostly hands in despair.)
Yesterday was Don's birthday. I always used to make a three-day celebration out of it. Don, the 16th, Franklin the 17th, and on the 18th, Cary Grant, my three favorite guys. I got up yesterday morning no longer looking for him-- close friends know that for years and years he was a presence, sending signs, feathers-- it's a long but really good story, ask me and I'll tell you sometime-- but I figured that by now Don had moved on to another assignment besides watching out for me. My own deep but somehow not abiding faith has been shaky in recent times, since there were no arms around my country or me, my brainpan has been empty of real inspiration (in-spire, to breathe in) and no good has come to the planet. Evil flourishes. Scary.
Still, I got up and determined to do something to make the day special, so drove to the Lake Shrine at the Self-Realization Center, turned on the radio instead of listening to the pop CD in Mandarin(am studying the language, to no great effect) I play whenever I drive. And on the radio that moment came "Afternoon Delight", the big hit from the '70s by the Starland Vocal Band, beloved friends of mine. So I got a kind of buzz from that-- a carom shot reassurance that there was love in the universe, something personally uplifting to me slated in for playing by some celestial disc jockey. I mean, when you're a person who looks for signs, they can be anywhere.
Then I got to the Center-- it was a very chilly day, and I walked around the lake-- beautifully landscaped with tropical flowers, the occasional word uplift set into a rock, some ashes of Gandhi, (who defined President as 'Chief Servant', yeah, yeah, yeah) a kind of Mark Twain minature riverboat set into the water. I remembered how heartsore I was when I walked those grounds some years ago, what pain I was in, because I wanted so badly to be in love again, and had chosen unwisely. Heartsore. That is the right word. So I sort of delighted in the truth that I was no longer heartsore. Then I stopped at the little fake landing where you can feed the mallards and swans that patrol the lake. Two Japanese girls leaned over the edge, and frightened at the enormous size of the cod(coy, I think they would have been in Asia) fled the platform, even as I tried to assure them it couldn't come out of the water and get them.
There were three little sections in a kind of pew-like wooden seat, and like Goldilocks, I tried each one, warming myself in a slash of sunlight. When I moved all the way to the right, a chill wind blew up my sweater. So I moved back to the middle, and thought, aha, symbolic even when you sit on a dock-- probably Jack, my Jewru(named that by Don) was right, and the only way to keep your balance is the Middle Path, as Buddha would counsel. But it's hard-- moderation is so demanding.
There's a little chapel on the grounds-- during the course of my spiritual quest I had danced for a few years with Self-Realization-- and Don, who was amused and sometimes a little maddened by my searching, but always indulgent, had stood still for that one, too. And I saw the six saints that they have depictions of at the front of the altar: besides Paramahansa Yogananda, the founder, and there was my particular favorite, Lahiri Mahasaya, a genial-looking bald fellow, his eyes half-closed from smiling. We had bought a little painting in Mexico; when we brought it home we realized it was the same face, so Don used to pass it and greet it as 'Larry,' And then, because of the squinty-eyes it would trigger Don's Rhett Butler impression, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." He did terrible impressions. Such a funny man, but he did terrible impressions. So it made me smile, all the way inside, just seeing that picture in the chapel, remembering how funny Don was.
The resonance of Loss. There is no sadness to his having left anymore, it was so long ago. Jack had a baby girl when Don was dying; she's going to graduate college this year. He would have been sixty-eight. I think he would have hated that, because what he was really about, besides sweetness, was being young. My pragmatic friend Ann, a lawyer, who was really mad at him for dying, said "It would always be tragic because he was so young." But all that remains that is tragic is that he didn't get to see his grand-sons; not that he didn't live to become old. I saw Diana Ross on Letterman last night, and terrifyingly, she is trying to be who she was, wild young hair, undoubtedly extensions, her voice gone, hardly able to lift her arms to the place where she loved you more today than yesterday but not as much as tomorrow. Sad, really. Sad is sadder than tragic.
But I do hope the better things we dream and imagine might be so, and Don's on some High Assignment, making the Afterlife a better place. Maybe he has more power now than he did when he was living in LA, when everything was show business bullshit, and it wasn't what a man was that counted, but what he did. Maybe he is part of a brigade(Ben leading) that I pray is revving up up(?) out(?) there to fix this beautiful country that shouldn't die young.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Setting the Record Straight

In a year sometime in the 60s-- I'm not sure exactly which one, but it had to have been when JFK was alive and well and Vaughn Meader, who did a perfect impression of that fine voice, put out an album called 'At Home with the First Family', a series of sketches, a sharp promoter named Lenny Gaines thought to do one with the Kruschevs at home. Jay Burton, a great comedy writer according to his reputation, was engaged to write the sketches, and I can't remember why, but Lenny asked me to help. I believe it was I who got George Segal, my hostile heart-throb from Haverford when I had been at Bryn Mawr, still very funny in those days except if you had a crush on him which brought out his Beast, to agree to play Nikita Kruschev on the album. Lenny was producing the album for Roulette, a company that made the Mafia seem the Vatican.
As we neared the date of the recording, disaster loomed. Jay had been unable to think of a thing, so I ended up writing the album with my friend Lois, who didn't want her name on it as a writer, so Lenny put in his. Also pulled into the recording session-- how young we were, and eager-- was Buck Henry, Joan Rivers, my not yet husband Don, and a passel of comics I can't call to mind, except one who was Charlie Hanna I think his name was, who had a mild heart attack in the middle of the session.
There were several near heart attacks as the recording started, as George, between his agreement to do the album, and the session itself, had signed with William Morris, and started to emerge as a movie star. So two heavyweight(they thought they were) agents from that organization came to the session and said George would be unable to participate, as his future was much too bright for him to be associated with such a record. Three of the musclemen from Roulette silently guided the agents into the men's room, coats bulging in the way they were in Film Noir when 'hoods' carried 'rods.' When the agents re-emerged, their faces were drained of all blood, skin grayish, and they announced that the album could proceed, that George would do the role.
As I recall the record did Splat, but it was cheerful to have made it in such good company, with me playing Mrs.Kruschev, Buck doing a series of small roles, among them a Cosmonaut, and Joan Rivers playing my maid. When she wrote her auto-biography she reversed that, saying she had played Nina Kruschev , so for a number of years I have dropped her teasing little notes suggesting she be a nicer person or I would tell All. Oh, how I wish I really had All to tell. I can say that the night her husband Edgar committed suicide she was in the hospital having liposuction, but that is probably a fact of which she would be proud.
But two days ago, finally, miraculously, Lenny gave me the last copy extant of the album, which I am having made into a CD at Wilder Bros. so I can hear how really awful it was. The album cover, though, is a hoot, with black and white photographic images of Nikita, Nina, their daughter and two bald little grandsons with baby Nikita faces superimposed, in front of the Kremlin, and all those interesting names on the back, playing parts.
What I remember best is after the devestation of Kennedy's assassination
some comic, I think it was George Carlin, saying "Poor Vaughn Meader," whose career as brilliant impressiont of JFK was shot down at the same time. Which gives rise in my soul to the heaviest question of all: Why is it that our deadest president is still alive?
CORRECTION from Hal Dresner, a witty friend. It was Lenny Bruce, who came out onstage some days after that tragic event, and ventured, to see if it was too soon for a joke, "Vaughn Meader is screwed."

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Down Memory Boulevard

On assigment from a friendly magazine editor, I went for the first time in what has to be decades into Hollywood Proper, or Improper, I guess you could say, the ambiance being like 42nd Street was before the reformation, whores and pimps I think they were, but maybe they were just this era's hopefuls. Little remains the same on the way east. The Sunset Towers, where the major players once resided is gone, and the Park Sunset, where I lived in secret while I was hoping to be discovered/loved/treated fairly also seems to be gone, though there are two tackey apartment hotels on its order, minus the coffee shop with the bear claws. As I got nearer to Highland, my whole youthful Hollywood history passed before my eyes, though much of it was inside them, the Boulevard of Broken Dreams having been much reconstructed. Still to the right was the Hotel Roosevelt, where Elvis stayed with his cousin Gene, serviced by Marianne so Nan could be in the other room screwing the King, who wasn't yet the King, I don't think, but was already pigging out on peanut butter and banana sandwiches washed down with Pepsi-Cola. Nan and Marianne were from Utah, little Mormon girls who had their own morality, wanting someplace to go besides the Hollywood Ranch Market, Open All Night, a clock with hands spinning continuously outside it, probably gone now. I didn't turn down the street to see. Grauman's Chinese is still there, though I doubt they'll make much money this week, as they're showing the Hillary Swank movie, and the tourists who hovered over the footprints in cement outside didn't look like they were up for a message.
Strangest of all is the L. Ron Hubbard building, rising only a couple of stories high on the north side of the Boulevard, square and horribly imposing, a shade of self-realizing mud, the name of the dedicatee, founder of Scientology, carved in huge blocked letters on the face of it. The rest of the street, except for the Wax Museum, looks like a cross between Blade Runner and a shopping center in Singapore, garish but with little character, like many of the people who came here when it was still really Hollywood.
I was on my way to Musso & Frank, Hollywood's oldest restaurant, (1919,) where gathered the greats of long ago, like Bogart who liked their martinis(there's an award from Gilbey's on one of the restaurant's dark walls, as that was what they poured) and Charlie Chaplin a generation or two before, who always sat at the front table, a not very cozy booth, so he could see everybody who came in, according to the waiter's lore. I found that particularly interesting, because Chaplin supposedly said "If you want to know me, see my movies." So the fact that he might have sat there with Paulette Goddard checking out who was coming in seemed odd, a kind of reaching out he wouldn't admit to. There are no tablecloths, so she could not have gone beneath the table to go down on him as she did with Erich Maria Remarque at El Morocco. But then, that was another era, and a different kind of genius.
I came in at the back, through the parking lot, and approached a fine looking gentleman in bow tie and formal jacket, so assumed he was the maitre d'. Never assume. He was dressed for the People's Choice Awards this evening, but being a good fellow, gave me his arm anyway, his wife following us until he could present me to the actual Maitre d'.
The menu leaves much to be desired-- it was clearly a holdover from a time when nobody was nervous about cholesterol-- filled with steaks and chops and salads that come larded with mayonnaise. But Mr. & Mrs. Gentleman offered me a taste of the famous Flannel Cakes(nobody seemed to know why they are called that-- thin pancakes slopping over the edges of the plate like bedsheets) and they were delicious. I had to send back my crab salad because you couldn't find the fish for the Hellmann's, but enjoyed my martini, drinking it for Bogey, and unable to Porterhouse it that early in the afternoon, though the men at the next table seemed to be enjoying theirs, settled for onion soup by the allegedly French chef. I don't think so.
Back in the parking lot I could see over the rooftop to the Fontenoy on Franklin, the apartment building where I went to my first Hollywood party, for Sal Mineo. He was many years later to be found stabbed in the garage of his apartment building by my friend Joie, whom the police never really questioned. I don't mean Joie was a suspect, I mean the cops weren't really that interested in what had happened to him, what she might have known or seen that could have pointed to his killer. Poor Sal. Even at the party in his honor, I don't remember that many people paying attention to him.(CORRECTION!!!! I just received a call from my friend Tom Korman to say that my facts are WRONG. Tom was Sal's agent and was called by the manager of the apartment on Holloway to identify the body, the killer having been hired by a Texas businessman because Sal had molested his son. Sal had just returned from a rehearsal of P.S. Your Cat is Dead, by Joe Kirkwood, at the Westwood Playhouse. And That's Hollywood.)
Then I drove back to the west of this part of the earth, only to discover my corner gas station, by which I had literally gauged the state of the union(Up 50cents a gallon, etc.) was fenced, and being torn down. Yesterday I mused over whether to stop in an pay the $2.59 a gallon, or wait for the price to go down. The price everywhere else now starts at $2.63. The moral of the story: always stop in to the place you like because it's YOUR neighborhood, and who knows when it's going to change, and you won't have options. The same probably applies to men who pay court, no matter what your grandma said about their being like buses, that another one will come along.