Sunday, April 29, 2007

Dead Before Me

My son and I were reminiscing about Vonnegut last night, and he remembered when Kurt paid for the dinner we had together at Bobby Van's in the Hamptons, and passed his Visa to the waiter. Robert saw the Visa card with his name on it, and said it was "surreal," seeing 'Kurt Vonnegut' on a credit card. Then I said something about my once buddy Kesey, and Robert said I should write something about writers I knew-- a book was what he suggested, but I hope this will do-- called 'Dead Before me," and made sure I emphasized the 'before' when repeating the title, and not the 'me.'
So I started thinking about all the writers I have known, not as many as I would have liked, since I always fancied a literary life, really yearned for it, envied H.D., the poet, who went to Bryn Mawr, and ran off with Ezra Pound. Not that I would have chosen Ezra Pound, although Joan Fitzgerald, a sculptor who lives in Venice, is fierce in her defense of him, swears that he was none of the dark things he was accused of, took me to his grave on that little island near Venice on the Day of the Dead, put a rose on his headstone and said Hemingway would have been nothing without him, that he gave Pound a check for the work he had done that Ernest took credit for, and Pound just framed the check, never cashed it. I mean, I should have had some of that, I think, although H.D.ended up a lesbian and I haven't had any of that, either. I wonder if that was because of Ezra Pound.
Writer dead before me I have known from a distance: Saul Bellow, from whose Nobel Prize speech a definition of what a novel is and where it comes from was incorporated as part of my writ of certiorari to the the Supreme Court in my libel case. He said it was part experience, part imagination, part something else-- I can't remember exactly, sort of science-fiction-y or fantasy, but of course it was eloquent, as he doubtless was, until I called to ask for his support when Doubleday was suing me and he declined with aggressive gusto, had his secretary call me back twice to make sure I didn't use his name on the letterhead that writers of great worth, many of them strangers except to principle, joined in adding their names to, asking that Doubleday withdraw the suit against me, including Capote and Mailer, whom I didn't know either except I once argued politics with Mailer and got him really incensed when he was running for mayor and I suddenly realized I was standing by the balustrade of Peggy Hitchcock's marble mansion where his fund raiser was, it was many, many feet down to the floor below, and he had, after all, stabbed his wife, so I backed off and away. But there were wonderful men and women who stood behind me then and Bellow wasn't one of them. Nor was Philip Roth, whom I actually knew sort of as he had eviscerated one of my closest friends in not one but two novels, just as Bellow had vampired his women. And when I asked Philip's victim why both these men had refused to let their names be used, she said "Because they're both cowards." So I don't lament Bellow, in whose name Philip will be receiving an award. Perfect.
We did have one very literary evening early in my marriage, when Philip and his lover, my lovely, gentle friend came to dine with us and Jules Feiffer and his then wife Judy. Don described it afterwards as like sitting in the shallows of the ocean, getting hit with wave after wave, they were so brilliant and competetive, the wit tsunamied; none of us could catch our breath. I am glad Jules is still alive. The exact thing he said which I expurgated from my piece when Vonnegut died, when he asked why I wanted to be friends with writers, "they're terrible people," to my answer that Gay Talese was close friends with Vonnegut whom I so longed to know, was "How could anyone be close friends with Gay Talese?" I like Gay, so I left that out, but fair is fair, and since I spare no one in these things, and Jules repeated quite recently that he stood by both statements, what the hell.
Kay Boyle is doubtless known to almost none of you. She was one of those high, lofty writers, not in attitude, but esteem, elected to the American Academy, already old when I met her, after reading in Publisher's Weekly that she had cancelled her contract with Doubleday because they had sued me. I tracked her down and we became good friends for the rest of her life, when I would go up to Oregon and visit, or she would come down to San Francisco when I lived there after Don died and she would be honored by PEN for her political activism, which she never forgave me for not having in my work. Hope there's still time. She had lived in exactly the right era, wrote a book with another author called 'Being Geniuses Together," about their young times in Paris, which of course I would have liked to emulate, but then when it got to be my turn to expatriate I was singing in a night club, in another much later decade, and Fitzgerald and Hemingway, all those I would have liked to have hung out with, even if Ernest did badly use Ezra, were long gone. Kay had been married-- she was much married as I recall, three or maybe four times-- to a man who was hounded by the House Un-American Activities Committee, the reason she so quickly stepped up to side with me, whom she didn't even know. As it turned out, the advance she returned when she canceled her contract with Doubleday, was $1000. That made me sick and sad. That great lady, and a lady she was, with such stature, and fine works behind her, and all they had given her that she gave back, which she could ill afford to do, was $1000.
Mario Puzo-- well, that's a whole saga. He was for several years our closest friend, Don's and mine, loving Don more than me which was easy to do, he was so genial and un-demanding. I gave Mario "The Pretenders" when it was one place behind The Godfather on the best-seller list, and he called me from the airport and said "You can't fool me: you wrote this for the same reason I wrote The Godfather; you wanted a bestseller. But the good writing is undisguisable." What could I do but love him? We gave him a dinner party consisting of all the dishes in The Fortunate Pilgrim, his earlier book that went un-noticed that he really loved, as he did the dishes, cooked by me--alongside "thigh-thick bread,"-- Mario wrote about food like I wrote about sex. We went everywhere with him and his Zelda-like mad mistress, only blonde, Nedra, she'd changed her name to, never telling him she was a lesbian, using her girlfriend at the Hollywood Reporter to get to him, because she wanted to play Kay in the movie, imagining, as the innocent do, even when they are corrupt, that a writer has anything to say when it comes to casting the movie. We made our front window on Rembert Lane into a bookstore, with floodlights and all, just for him, when they re-issued The Fortunate Pilgrim. We went everywhere together having "eating experiences," which Mario liked best until he found Nedra, and conceivably after. He went to Duke to try and lose weight and told us of a fellow inmate who'd had to be rushed to emergency after eating two gallons of Kosher pickles. We really loved him. Then he got mad at me for writing too many books. "Another book!" he raged, throwing The Motherland on the floor. He was having a really constipated time, creatively, and when Nedra, whose whole life was extreme fiction(run out of a Southern town for seducing the minister's son, which she turned into a Blanche DuBois reverie, re-making herself into a debutante in New Orleans) died young and still willowy dazzling, of an aneurism, he managed somehow to make it into a not interesting novel, Fools Die.
Still, when I got sued for libel by the charlatan who ran the nude encounter I'd gone to, and tried to transmute in my novel Touching into my Madame Bovary, I called Mario. He said "That's ridiculous. Anyone could come out of the woodwork and sue anyone-- writer they'd passed in a hall. Sinatra could sue me. You must call all the writers. You can't appeal to their morality, because they have none. You must appeal to their cowardice. You must say 'If I go, you go.'"
"Thank you, Mario," I said. When the Supreme Court refused to hear my case, and Doubleday, which had argued up to that point to the court that it would have "a chilling effect on Fiction," turned and sued me, I called Mario. He wouldn't take my call.
As Don was dying, the one gift I could give him besides being there in a really deep way, was getting everyone who had been important in his life to call him, he was so loving, so appreciated knowing people cared. I ran into the woman who had optioned Fools Die, and asked her to have Mario call, as I no longer had his contact. She phoned me the day before Don died and said Mario didn't want to talk to him. I'm afraid I lost whatever centeredness I had, and let out all the rage and frustration you feel about cancer, which you can't get your hands on, on her.
Some months later I went to a party at Scandia, where we had had many dinners with Mario. My dinner partner was, as good Serendipity would have it, Freud's Last Pupil. He was almost blind, but he could really see. I told him the whole story, weeping, and he said "What ego!" I rejoiced in my soul that he was really going to let Mario have it. "You knew from the first incident that the man was an asshole," he went on. "But you thought you could change him."
So there it was. The ego was Me.
Ah, but another year went by; I went to a book signing, and there was Mario's secretary. Yet again I burst into tears. I told her the last part of the story. "But Gwen," she demurred. "Mario loved Don. The woman never told him. He would have called. Call him tomorrow," she said, and gave me the number.
I did. He wouldn't take the call.
There are some I don't lament, going before me. Emphasis on the 'before.'

Friday, April 27, 2007

Sic Transit

Jack Valenti is dead, arbiter of ratings and motion picture fan. He was also a lover of my mother's. Little men particularly were heated up by her, because she was so tiny and flirtatious she made them feel tall. At least until she had them in her grip at which point she cut them down to below size.
She met Valenti through Leo Jaffe, a family friend, who was treasurer of Columbia Pictures, Vice-President towards the end of the Schneider regime, and mad for her, after her for years, in spite of or maybe because of the fact that she and his wife Terry were friends. He schlepped my first musical, written when I was twenty in Paris, from Max Gordon's, the producer's office, to several other offices with my stepfather Puggy, who lugged a huge machine--they were then--so the tape of my creation could be played. When one person didn't like it, Leo said "Then we'll find someone who will," which sounded very heartening and helpful to one who was twenty, and thought all things were possible. What wasn't possible was that Leo would ever land my mother, though he tried up to the end of his life, and, for all I know, after, since they are all now in Little People's Hereafter, or Not. And if so maybe they get to have all their dreams come true, even the carnal ones.
Valenti nailed her in Rome, and she told me it was the first time she had an orgasm without foreplay, not the kind of thing a mother usually discusses with her daughter, but as most of you know by now, she was not the usual mother. So he must have been a spicy little Sicilian, and Leo would have had a heart attack earlier than the one he had if he had known that Jack had been where he so wanted to go.
Jack also hit on my friend Wendy, when I introduced them in DC. Wendy was young and adorable and with NIH and he was after her 'Big Time,' in Wendy's words, inviting her to Mexico. He seemed brusque and unsexy to me, but then, what did I know-- certainly less than my mother. Wendy turned him down. I wonder how she is. She was one of the first women working on AIDS.
As for the musical Leo Jaffe schlepped, it finally got a hearing when my agent at MCA got me an audition with Frank Loesser, my idol who wrote 'Guys and Dolls' and a trunkfull of wonderful songs, some of them allegedly other people's. I sang a few numbers for Frank, and he said "Kid, you're the biggest talent since me. Write me a musical." So I pulled out the one I had written when I was 20, made it better, added some new songs, and sent it to Frank. After some weeks I called to find out what had happened with it.
"Moss and I are working on this musical in Boston, and we've used some of your stuff."
Shocked but flattered, I finally managed "What about money?" "Write your family," Frank said.

Carol Burnett's Birthday

I mark this event not because I am so moved by or tied to Carol Burnett, but because it turned out that was also the date I got married. I had wanted my wedding, since it was finally taking place, bonding me to Don, the only kind man who had ever come into my sphere and wouldn't go away, to be on the 18th of April, Paul Revere's ride. But that wasn't on a Sunday, and we had to get married on a Sunday, because my mother was suing my father for child support for me(I was 29), he was the mayor of Tucson, and that was the only day he couldn't be arrested: the marshall was waiting at the end of the crystal-chandeliered corridor for it to turn midnight, kind of the dark, vengeful Jewish version of Cinderella, so he could nab him.
We gathered in the Gold and White Suite of the Plaza Hotel, everybody I loved or thought I did, for a wedding breakfast following the ceremony; my mother and Puggy, her husband du jour, on the right, on the left my father and Selma,the bitch wife to whom my mother had introduced him, thinking she would surely finish off the job my mother had started, only to find, to her horror, that Selma actually elevated him, took this man who was such a loser he couldn't pay $100 a week child support, moved him to Tucson where she filled him with such confidence he subdivided the desert and made it bloom, becoming the richest realtor in Tucson, and then its mayor. He had come to New York some months before to check out this man I had been seeing, and, pronouncing him not my type, returned to his hotel room to find the marshall waiting with a subpoena, for failure to pay child support from the time I was eleven, when they divorced, till I was twenty-one, some years before. My father immediately called me and accused me of fingering him to my mother, but in fact, my mother, probably the world's best detective, with her restive relentlessness, had gone through the yellow pages, calling every hotel until the Pennsylvania, where he was staying, and found him. Nonetheless my father accused me, and as I sobbed 'No, Daddy, NO, I didn't, I didn't," Don, not used to such high-level domestic drama, came into my apartment just in time to see me jump out the window, not knowing there was a little balcony outside. I can conjure to this day the vision of his sweet face drained of all blood as he stuck his head out, assuming i had leapt to my death. I guess it was then I made up my mind to marry him, in spite of what a good man he was.
So there we all were at the Plaza on Sunday, April 26th, with my maid of Honor(how funny it seems now) Sue Mengers, who said "We must do this every Sunday," and Stanley Kubrick, my on and off best friend, cornering Don who was producing the Jets games at the time for TV, telling him to keep the camera on the line, and Don saying, "Stanley, if you'll let me run credits at the end saying 'Directed by Stanley Kubrick,' I'll keep the camera anywhere you say." Then there was the Rabbi we'd gotten after we decided we couldn't use the Rabbi fromTemple Emanuel, what with his name-dropping who he'd just married(Freddie Fields) Our Rabbi had to leave early because it was one of those tish somethings where you couldn't dance and he thought we might want to dance. There was Canadian bacon we told Don's Grandma was corned beef, and my Grandma who didn't care, except she was glad I was getting married.
Then Lew the Mayor, as Don called him, took us aside, and said, more rabbinical than the rabbi, 'My children-- anyone could give you presents or money-" Don murmured in my ear 'Anybody but you, you stingy son-of-a-bitch-- "But i am giving you something with meaning: a tenth of a lot in Tucson where one day a great medical center will rise. Unfortunately, it's beneath regulation size for a medical center, but we'll fix that." A few months later he sent us a bill fot the taxes on our share of the lot, and Don told him what he could do with our tenth or, indeed, the whole lot if he had room for it. That launched a breech that was not to be healed, in spite of beautiful grandchildren who looked just like Grandpa Lew until he came to visit when my trust fund, into which he'd put the money he owed my mother for child support for me so she couldn't arrest him, came due, when he reappeared and asked if I didn't want to give it to him to invest.
But it was a lovely wedding. Today. I won't tell you how long ago,because I can't believe how old I am. But I am glad I married him, Happy Birthday to Carol Burnett.

Friday, April 20, 2007


Today is Hitler's birthday, and for those of you (us) who thought there was an end-time for a clear delineation of evil, SURPRISE! These past few days have seen an outcrop of ugliness that reminds me of when I was taking geology, and our professor marched us through Wissahicken Schist. We laughed then, because we were undergraduates and made little jokes of mispronunciation in our minds. But the world, or certainly our country, has lost any concept of decency and privacy, and what has outcropped onto the airways is Wissahicken Shit.
We could only turn away from the constant broadcasting of the horror at Virginia Tech, the excuse on the part of the networks being that it was a "News Story," and so there was an obligation to broadcast it. Really? Wasn't Auschwitz? Did we have to see the films of the skeletons and bulldozed bodies if we weren't sadistic?
How low have we sunk, that those who regulate our laws(see Gonzalez) are the patently stupidest, and the biggest liars. And worse, that the alleged 'Truth' is broadcast on the 'Today'Show, which had the tasteless temerity to run Alec Baldwin's rant to his daughter, undoubtedly sent to YouTube by the relentless bitchery of his ex-wife. What's wrong with people? What business was it of ours?
And what business is the Today Show in, that they would make that a part of supposedly homespun Americana?
I feel so bad for Baldwin that he blew, so sorry for his having loved not wisely and apparently not too well either. I am so sickened by the villainy of his ex-wife, that she has such a vampiric appetite for revenge. But most of all I am sad for our country, that this kind of crap is going down, welcomed, and exploited,
We have learned nothing from the man who made the cover of Time Magazine, because that publication really had no choice but to put Hitler on it, he was such a dark force. But "the last good war" was apparently never really won. The forces of evil, something I never really wanted to believe existed, are elbowed into the sidelines by the forces of media.
I remember during Watergate, when I went to a dinner party at the Georgetown Club; my friend Diane, who was my guide at the time into the world of metaphysics, had said there was no such thing as evil-- there was only absence of good. I expressed that belief to my dinner partner, Richard Kleindienst, one of Nixon's fired attorney generals. And he said to me, "Oh, there's evil all right. I've seen it."
Well now we've all seen it. The producers of the Today Show should turn the cameras on themselves and add their faces to the rogue's gallery of villains. What a world, what a world! Margaret Hamilton might say, no longer seeming a witch when measured against Kim Basinger. And what a country, what a country, that any of us are buying into any of that because of our preoccupation with celebrity, and our complete, I mean complete lack of an inner life, so we suck around the remains of the shattered lives of others.
Shame on us. And Happy Birthday to Hitler. He would be so pleased with the way it's all turned out, in spite of his appearing to lose.

Friday, April 13, 2007


I woke up this morning with the slightly queasy feeling of loss, and the nagging suspicion I should write a condolence letter. In the haze of a confused or relaxed consciousness, it took me a minute to remember who had died, Kurt Vonnegut, a beloved but not close friend, and not more than a spit of time for the realization to sink in that I could not write to the person most appropriate to receive my condolences, since she, as Shakespeare might have put it, likes not me, and it is because of her constant intercession that Kurt and I did not become closer.
So I have decided to write to the one whose greatest loss it is, and that is the world, the planet that Kurt had such an elevated awareness about, whose despoiling he mourned for most of his intelligent life, exacerbated towards the end by his reasonable loathing of George W. Bush, and his grief over the ruination of what had been the country he was so proud of. Rage in Vonnegut wore the cloak of wit, expressed so originally and with such unique cadences that his popularity was greatest among those who fancied themselves rebels, as he was. I wrote several times to the Nobel Committee nominating him, which he found particularly amusing, since he understood how political that prize was, and how little chance there was of their ever taking him seriously, since the only living American(he was then) they were considering had to be a blowhard like Saul Bellow, when Kurt was a man who blew soft.
He was in his sixties when I first met him, an age I no longer consider old, but might have at the time because he was already venerable, the words he had written powerful as they were comic, or rather, loaded because comedy was their disguise. But he was also on the side of justice and sanity, neither of which were prevailing in his time, or maybe never were, and have certainly vanished now. My son likened him to Mark Twain, which the critics also did at his passing. But I suspect Mark Twain, who was a close friend of mine, though long dead, (see a meeting I had with him in Kingdom Come, for which I received an unsoliticted A+ from my college American Lit professor, Warner Berthoff) was a lot funnier, and perhaps more comfortable in his own skin than Vonnegut, pissed off at most things though he, too, was. Vonnegut's hair never got quite as white as Twain's, and his lot, I don't think, ever got as financially desperate(Twain had to roam the world as a travel writer to sustain himself in his later days, something I know from personal experience is a gift, but might not have seemed so to him at the time.) Kurt stayed closer to home, though he St. Barted in the winters, and looked forward to autumn, when he would travel north to New England to visit friends and see the leaves change.
If you have looked lately into the heart of a flower, fixed on it for some moments at least, you can see peace there, so I hope it was the same for him when he saw those sweeps of russet and gold on the canvas Nature made. When we became close to close, he was just turning seventy, complaining that he was already many years older than Steinbeck had been when he died, so the towel with which he mopped his cares was already poised to be thrown in. I was in my meditational phase, or trying to be, my attention playing hooky from serenity school, but I tried, in ways, to gentle him down, he was so anxious over having been abandoned. He was trying to write a book from the point of view of Booth, the actor who assassinated Lincoln, but it was not going well. Lincoln being a particular hero of his, I tried to get him to come to the 125th anniversary of the Los Angeles Public Library, using the lure of the wealthy woman here who has snagged all Lincoln's china and silver and high-faultin' doo-dads from that era, promising the dinner that honored him would have a table set with all those things, but he said it would make him too sad. I asked him why, and he said because Lincoln was dead. I tried to point out that even if he hadn't been shot, he would have passed anyway. But that was no consolation. Besides, his very hands-on spouse insisted to the woman whose task that event was, that it would be just too unmanageable, toting around that lumbering-- (he still was, then, not yet frail) giant on airplanes, unless they got to go first class and could bring everybody, which the library couldn't afford.
So he's gone, and with him, the conversations you could have with him, world. In recent years my conviction that This was not all there was has weakened, my hope, faith really, that there was some guiding intelligence behind the universe, and we were all headed for a place where we could chew over, without swallowing, what we had learned, has faltered. I would like to think that, cynic that he was or struggled to be, he might be having a pleasant surprise around now, and be in the Bardo, maybe with Steinbeck. But I am afraid in view of the spiritual mantel I long believed was protecting this country having shredded, the hope/faith/dream of all that might be delusion. If not, it's good, world that you paid at least some attention. Kiss him Goodbye.
And Heaven/Afterlife/Bardo-- if you're there, for God's sake welcome him, thank him, let him know he really made a difference. And show him there are more things in Heaven and Earth than have been dreamed of in even his philosophy. And so he goes.