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.