Monday, January 25, 2010

Not Quite a Madeleine

So as I looked for fresh flowers to brighten my hotel room roaming Pavillions, formerly Von’s, but suddenly made elegant by a change of name, I fueled my trip with a paper cup of Seattle’s Best Coffee, and as I no longer give a shit, had a bear claw. Bear claws played a very important part in my life when I was very young and just starting out in this business(alleged) as I was staying in the Park Sunset, a less than upscale motel made sort of upscale by its location(Sunset Boulevard a stretch of the leg and imagination from the Sunset Towers, where some kept starlets stayed and George Raft in his very last years when he still had a pimp so the rumors about him were probably true.)
There was a coffee shop by the street entrance to the Park Sunset where they had bear claws, and as I was very chubby, fat actually, in addition to young and wasn’t sure anyone would ever love me(someone eventually did) I would resist the temptation to have one. I gave in only occasionally when the temptation became too strong and my will power caved, along with the conviction that someday someone would love me, so what the hell: there was something about the thinly sliced almonds and icing that smacked more of comfort than a hope did. Also living in the Park Sunset at the time were Vince Edwards who went on to improbable TV stardom in some doctor series I can’t remember the name of, Vic Morrow who almost became a star but a helicopter blade took his head off, and Corey Allen, the one who went off the cliff while playing ‘chicken’ with James Dean in ‘Rebel Without a Cause.’ He was a very handsome lad, most intense, and the son of Carl Cohn or Cohen, I can’t remember, who was head honcho at the Sands in Vegas when it was still heavily Mafia-ized, and he was considered a ‘White Jew,; which meant he was allowed in the inner circles even though he wasn’t Italian. I know this for a fact because my father-in-law was a ‘White Jew’ who told me Mario Puzo had a lot of things wrong and one day he would tell me the real story, and I am sorry I never heard it. I did, however, hear from him the story of the man who took the fall for Sinatra in the Westchester Playhouse scandal where there was a lot of illegal stuff going on that they tried to tie Sinatra to, since he was heavily involved in making sure the playhouse got tippy tippy top talent, and there was much graft and rumors of payoff, and Harry, my father-in-law, told me that the fall guy, a buddy of Sinatra, took the rap, went to jail. When he was released Sinatra sent his private plane to pick him up and take him for R&R in Vegas, but like a sandy Amelia Earhart(sp) he disappeared somewhere over the desert and was never heard from again.
Anyway, Carl Cohen, Corey Allen’s(changed back to Allen Cohen when he became a director0 dad was a really nice guy in spite of what it said in The Green Felt Jungle, an early expose of the Mafia, and he liked me and so okayed me at the money window at the Sands, which was kind but unfortunate as being an addictive personality I had a run as a gambler. Nothing Kenny Rogers, you understand, but I would keep going back and cashing checks thinking I could finally beat the crap table. I had gone to Vegas for the first time when I was with MCA as a songwriter, and they sent me to Vegas to write for Judy Garland and Gordon MacRae(sp?) I drove up there in the car Jennings Lang sold me from the MCA lot, that I bought with what his wife, Monica Lewis, paid me for a song I wrote for her night club act. It was a yellow Pontiac convertible, and quite hideous, but I was barely twenty and proud to have a car, even though I was being ripped off in several directions by the machinations of M CA.
Anyway I got to Vegas to write material for Judy Garland, who had a nervous breakdown as I arrived(before I met her so it couldn’t have been cause and effect,) and then I went to the Desert Inn where Gordon McRae(that looks better) was standing at the crap tables. I introduced myself to him, and he immediately began a losing streak, and after about $25,000 said, tight-lipped and dry-mouthed to one of his cronies “Get her out of here.” So friendless in Vegas, which goes not quite as deep as Eyeless in Gaza, but you’ve seen one desert you’ve seen them all, I made my shaken way to the safe deposit box, wherein was contained a certified check from NBC for all I had earned during my brief career at the only job I was ever to have, writing for the Colgate Comedy Hour, where I shared offices with Woody Allen who never showed up except the day we got paid so was clearly already smarter than I was, I who wrote a sitcom a day or a musical a week to which no one listened. Anyway, there I was, about to get my check and cash it, and I passed the old comic Jackie Miles, and said ‘Stop me, Jackie. I’m on my way to the box,” and he raised both hands rabbinically and said “Go my child and learn,”
I went back to the crap table where I had been spiritually eviscerated by Gordon McRae and put a dollar on the pass line and won. So I took the extra dollar off and said “Someone please tell me how this workd, “ and they said “Shut up and keep shooting.” I made thirty five straight passes. Someone betting against me lost two hundred thousand, someone betting with me, made sixty thousand. I made thirty five dollars. Afterwards someone explained the game, and I went to the box. It took me two and a half days with no sleep but I managed to lose every penny I’d made. The next time I had any money at all I drove to Vegas, put a hundred on the pass line, won a hundred dollars, got back into the car, stopped for gas in Barstow, where someone stole my wallet.
So I understood I was not meant to win, and so became an inveterate gambler, since in that arena losing is the spur. I would sneak out during nights in Vegas after I was married while Don slept, and cash checks and lose. Finally, during a rough patch in my marriage, we flew up to Vegas for Liza’s opening at the Riviera in a plane load of H’wood semi-celebrities, and I was so mad at Don I promised God if He would get me through it with a calm mind I would never gamble again. So He(or She or If, as I still believed at the time) did so I did, too. Have never gambled since except at a raffle in the Cotswolds where I won a stuffed Penguin.
Anyway, back to the bear claws. I think I may have eaten one or two during the time I was secretly hiding out in the Park Sunset writing the beginning of Lolita for my best friend(I thought he was) Stanley Kubrick, which was intense and lonely as he wouldn’t let me call any of my friends as he was very paranoid and thought if they knew I was in town they would know what I was doing.
The one today at Pavillions was very fresh and quite good, and I actually tasted it instead of just quieting grief and isolation, which I did as a 20 year old. During the course of eating it I remembered Maila Nurmi, who played Vampira on TV while introducing horror films, and told me she had peered in through the window of the lower level of the Park Sunset and watched Corey Allen humping, which at the time, since I was very young, I considered shocking, Not the spying, but the actual hump. She had been great friends with Jimmy Dean, predicted his stardom but apparently didn’t tell him not to drive so fast. She was probably the most interesting character in Naked in Babylon, allowing me full throttle to write about madness. She told Hal Wallis to go fuck himself which had ended her career as a seemingly serious actress. But she was genuinely fascinatingly nuts.
As for Don, the man who finally loved me, I remembered when he met my father, Lew the Mayor as he called him, and my father suggested before we got married that he change his name to ‘Davis,’ Don said “If I changed my name to Davis, I would have to get a pink jacket and add ‘And his’, as the full monicker should be ‘Don Davis and his orchestra.,” He was funny.
Our son wore a pink jacket to his father’s funeral when he was sixteen. I tried to get him into a dark blue one, but he said if he wore that, in case he managed to be there to observe, his father wouldn’t recognize him.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

It Never Rains in California

So as if to demand equal time with the freeze in the east, and, more devastatingly, the disaster in Haiti, the heavens(if you can think of them as such) have opened up .
Great mudslides are everywhere they can do the most damage, and for some reason I can hear Cass Elliot singing ‘It Never Rains in Southern California,’ although that was a hit by Toni Toni Tone, whoever the hell they are, when I Google it to check.
I think of Cass often, possibly because my son wanted me to write ‘Dead Before Me’, and she was one of the first famous friends I had to go. But also I think of her because I can still hear her voice, sometimes on the radio (“All the leaves are brown and the sky is gray”) and sometimes in memory, combined with her own appraisal of herself, the only overconfident thing about her, that “there are three great pipes in this country: Barbra, Edye(Gorme) and me.” We met her at the palatial movie star home of the palatial movie star Laurence Harvey, whose epicene talent was surpassed by his elegance. He had more style than anybody, most of it painstakingly acquired, since he had been born Lithuanian, and it was a long trip, probably by boat, to the impressive if ultimately frail figure he became. He married the sophisticated British actress Margaret Leighton, many years his senior but a slender heavyweight in theatre and films, which was what he wanted to be, and at some point left her for the widow of Harry Cohn, the ferocious head of Columbia, whom he kept referring to, even after their divorce, as ‘Mrs. Cohn.’ It put me in mind of Billy Rose, the once long ago flamboyant tiny producer(read The Pretenders) who told me “You should never marry a woman who’s richer than you are.”
Anyway, Larry had this great white house looking down into one of the chi-chi-ier canyons, up atop a street called Cabrillo off Coldwater Canyon, with Greek statues around the pool and all the rest of it, as one imagined movie stars lived, probably including the builder of the house who could not wait to snag someone pretentious, which Larry also was, although very dear. The furniture was also Movie Star white, and on one of the deep armchairs , sunken in, was Cass Elliot. She either liked and trusted me immediately or didn’t know how to hold anything back, and told me she was not financially secure. “Joni Mitchell is shipping gold, and I can’t even get a record contract<’ which, for one of the three great pipes in the country had to be really painful. Her life itself was obviously painful, judging from her size, with which I both identified and empathized, as having grown up a fatty whom people always told ‘You have such a pretty face, if you’d only lose weight…” I could see the pretty face hiding in Cass. She had wonderful green eyes, something I always regarded as an achievement, and though the rest of her features were less than impressive, I could wash the bloat away with my not green eyes and see who was hiding inside, and she was pretty. And very very funny, and quick. Easily wounded and compulsive—I knew of a very cute young writer who drove with her to Palm Springs in her Cadillac, tilted heavily to one side, who made very clear to her that he had no intention of sleeping with her, at which point she pulled off the road and went into a store and bought four of the giant size Hershey bars and ate them in very few minutes during the rest of the drive, at the end of which she had him fired from the comedy he was supposed to write for her.
We had the same doctor, a very sweet man later to miss completely my husband’s cancer so considered himself responsible for his death which I try not to do, who had an overload of compassion(although apparently not a lot of smarts) and he was very loving to Cass, and enlisted me to help her. At one point she fell on herself and broke her leg, and as I visited her, in traction in a hospital bed in her home, leg pulled high in the air, I told her it was a warning, that she would have to lose weight or she would kill herself, which she not long after did, the cruel verdict of the gossipmongers being that she had died of a ham sandwich. Undoubtedly the report that she had choked on something she was eating was a true one, but I always considered she had died of loneliness, the kind of desperation that when you were alone in a hotel room in London could drive you to eat too fast and without thinking, imagining that feeling full would make you feel less isolated. I am sorry for the health rage now finally sweeping America about obesity that she, or someone like her, with powerful pipes, is not around to be a poster girl. They could use the army motto ‘Be all that you can be’ and try and turn it around so it sang ‘Be less than you are.’
We went once, to see her in Las Vegas where she had a new act. She wore a voluminous silk outfit that made her look more like a circus tent itself than the clown she thought she was dressed as, surrounded by boy dancers dressed the same, but of normal size. At one point Don turned to me and whispered “You could have been her.” (I had started my professional life, such as it was, as a singer, doing my own material—mostly comedy-- in Paris at the Mars Club, and in Hollywood at the Purple Onion on Sunset. At the time I was still a chub.)
So I ached for my beloved(which she was, -- I am a sucker for funny, especially when I can see the poignancy underneath) friend, her inability to find love, especially for herself enough to stop eating. When she died, her fineral was the same day John Dean went to jail(he was my neighbor on Rembert Lane, him and the martials(sp?) who were staked out in the upper room of his garage waiting to see him to the slammer for his complicity in Watergate.) I remember at the time standing in the Hollywood Cemetery, the once top place to get buried i—Valentino and the rest of the kids—that had lost out first to Forest Lawn, then later to Westwood, or what Peter Hyams calls ‘Our Lady of Avco’ where Marilyn and Natalie and Billy Wilder are planted, not to mention, though I must, Don,, thinking that of the two, Cass had gotten the lighter sentence. At the time I was a great believer in the Afterlife, having a close friend who had soul-washed me, but has since disappeared from my life, angry and unforgiving, so I am no longer sure that anything she believed in could possibly be true, or Christian, in the best sense of that word, probably with a little ‘c.’
So Cass is under the ground and probably not on high, but she is on the radio, and the voice is wonderful and strong, and whether or not one of the three greatest pipes in America at that time, still worth listening to. I remember when I introduced her to my close, loved friend Taffy who was the other half then of Bill, one of the writers of Country Roads, with a lovely voice, and a face that drove Republicans wild, with dimples yet, Cass told her not to give up her day job. Fairly merciless I thought it. Taffy ignored her and went on to become one quarter of the Starland Vocal Band, who had the big hit(one) “Afternoon Delight.” So sometimes it’s good not to listen to someone who you’re impressed with, though I often wish Cass had been impressed enough with me to pay attention.
Still, I think of her in Baltimore, where she climbed up on the stage when she was four, in the movie theater where they had talent searches and giveaway dishes during the intermission. And the MC said to her, “Little Girl, what are you doing here?” And she said “I came here to sing.” And that was why she was born, and that was what she did.
I think of it more than I probably would when I sit on myself too hard because I do not feel whole unless I am writing. I think of her, and then I think “I came here to write.” And I did. I should probably be starting on a new book now, but I’m scared. So this is my Instead, while it’s raining.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Decorations Come Down

So Mimi and I are in Beverly Hills, in fine regalia for the holidays, Manufacturer’s Trust bank building with a big ribbon up the side of it and across, so it looked like a present which it might not have been to anybody but Ben Bernake. But as they were cutting away the pine from various storefronts on Santa Monica Boulevard this morning , I snagged a big red ribbon for Mimi who does not care to wear it, thinking it makes her look like a whore. Whores do not proliferate in Beverly Hills as there are too many women looking to give it away, but I did see a number of tiny, tight-assed women in very butt-conforming pants who are wearing spike heels with gold or red on the undersoles, so they are either making a lot of money being manicurists, or emulating Oprah.
It is a great privilege to be here when so much of the country is freezing, so I set aside the last of any contempt I had for LA and just say thank you for the weather. There are also a number of people I love here, so it is good to be back, and some favorite friends are being kind, bringing me DVDs of movies to watch during my confinement (I am With Book) and recuperating from minor eye surgery to correct what Tom Korman called my Quasimodo, an overused muscle from staring too long for too many years at the computer or what was once known as a typewriter. I understand Cormac McCarthy’fias typewriter sold for a fortune at auction, but I do not have it in me to try for greatness that is depressing, and it would be pointless anyway, as my last typewriter I gave to a charity in San Francisco when I wrote a novel there. When I tried to get it back after my career took what the Fed would call a downturn, thinking perhaps the talent had been in that machine, I was informed that by then probably people were living in it.
So I am here at the Hotel Mosaic, a little undiscovered jewel, repairing and courting the Muses. I think if they have any sense, they will be glad to come to California, setting aside the financial crisis and the bad rap. We shall see.
Meanwhile, my last work, Live the Day, a picaresque tale of a woman of a certain age (who could that be?) in Venice, is in the capable hands of a young man who believes in it. My Greek play, as friends of this blog know, is to be a part of the celebration of my Alma Mater, Bryn Mawr’s 125th anniversary, in a renovated Goodhart Hall, where Katharine Hepburn spoke her first words onstage. She came back to talk to those of us who were interested in the theater while I was an undergraduate, and with hand holding a shaking teacup, and a very Main Line accent, said “I suppose I’m expected to tell you how Bryn Mawr helped me in the the-ah-tah, but I cahn’t.”
Well, if the occasion ever warrants it, I can. It seems only yesterday since Junior Show. How did that happen?
Love to you all, amd a belated Happy Healthy New Year.

The Fall of Bedford Falls

A mild wind, chill around the edges, blew alongside the structure at 221 West 57th Street, beneath those big metal rods that hold up buildings that await demolition. And with that wind, papers blew, used cups and candy wrappers, notes that people had written each other when people still wrote on paper instead of texting, receipts and unpaid bills part of the blowy debris. A black man, I think I am still allowed to call him, listlessly swept up some of the mess. I asked him what had been there, and he said ‘The Hard Rock CafĂ©.’ The whole scene, dreary as it was, viewed after coming from a performance of David Mamet’s ‘’Oleanna”, seemed particularly desolate, like the part of “It’s a Wonderful Life” when the angel showed Jimmy Stewart what it would be like if he’d never been born. I know there are many who regard that movie as mawkish, but I believe Frank Capra represented what was uplifting in the American spirit, and he is gone gone gone, as is the country he loved, and what we are become is Pottersville.
You can take the temperature of the country by what is happening on Broadway, although the Sarah Palin part of it, the “real America” would insist on opting out, if they knew what opting was. The play I saw this afternoon was an agony, unpleasant to begin with because that was David Mamet then, (I look forward to seeing where he is now, which is coming any day) and as I remember Madonna was in it, so it must have caused quite a stir at the time, the student bitch with her own feminist agenda, looking to bring down a harried professor with the charge of sexual harassment. Today’s matinee was particularly uncomfortable, because everybody knows it’s closing early, the cast in pain because they have to soldier on, the audience, fractionally filled, probably mostly paper, resistant to what is for openers a difficult and contentious play, with its unlikable non-heroine(Julia Stiles) triumphing over the good guy(Bill Pullman.) I have a personal soft spot for Mr. Pullman because we were once in the lost luggage department of an airline at the same time, and children were climbing on him, and I saw the decent human being he was managing to stay in spite of being a successful new young actor in movies. To have suffered through the audience restlessness (and in a few cases, leaving)must have been as discomfiting as not knowing where your bags had been sent by mistake or if you would ever get them back, and there were no tiny tots clambering up his legs to reassure him that life would go on. The whole experience was shadowed even grayer by today’s piece in The New York Times about what’s working(Wicked, over the roof—go know, somebody tell me why) and what’s struggling(Finian’s Rainbow, the most joyful, witty score, lyrics especially, by my once mentor and wonderful friend, Yip Harburg, the true poet among songwriters) and what I know to be closing, Superior Donuts, the best play I have seen on Broadway in a long time.
It is all about more than Broadway, and I think I know why. Everybody is afraid, whether or not they admit it. No one knows where we are going, or if, and rather than examine that scary scenario, they want to be entertained. No thought, please, we’re tourists. Stores are empty, or closing, except for Apple, where a constant stream of customers,15,000 a day on Fifth Avenue (and there’s a new one where Circuit City went out of business on Upper Broadway) stand on line to buy pricey Ipod Nanos(that’ll keep you from thinking) or Iphones, so they can twitter what they are doing to keep themselves mindless, which is nothing.
I would venture, as a retired optimist, that what we need is Jimmy Stewart, except I think we had him for a few months before reality started bringing him down. (You may remember Mr. Smith goes to Washington, the idealist who becomes a senator, and then…) So the wind blows, hauntingly, beside deserted cafes where once were noisy, spendthrift revelers. Good God, the evil banker triumphed.