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?"