Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Shanah Tovah, I think

    I had some breakfast this morning in spite of the fact that I usually fast on this meant-to-be solemn occasion, because I was meeting the columnist Liz Smith for lunch, an old friend to whom I owed gratitude (she was very kind and supported me during the best of my writing career) -- I remember after the success of The Pretenders, and the election of Richard Nixon, after which we moved to England because we could,  I was sitting with her downstairs having breakfast in the Regency, where we staying because we could, when Robert ran by the window in his adorable toddlerhood. When he came in, she said "I saw you running in the street," and for several minutes after that, he chanted, ecstatic, "You saw me running in the street.  You saw me running in the street."  I believe it was the highlight of his New York visit, since he never liked anything more than being observed.
   She had also turned away some attractive man at a cocktail party who was interested in me, saying, very calmly but severely, "She's already taken." (I believe she really liked Don, as I did, too.)  The Pretenders had soared high on the bestseller list without much help from the publisher, being a surprise hit, and one of its most witty advocates in the Hearst papers had been Cholly Knickerbocker, whom I didn't know but who roundly admired my novel in print.  Then at a cocktail party, I was introduced to Liz Smith, and she said "I'm Cholly Knickerbocker."  After that we were great friends for a while, and she even marked the antics of my mother when she had her own column, so my mother felt like she, too, was a hit.
    I was very grateful to her, but then pressed for more publicity, as I was success-mad, and fearful it was going away, which it was, so Liz got mad at me.  Because my life has changed so completely, as I believe I have, I wanted to smooth it over before one or both of us left the planet (she is almost 90, and I am surprisingly old, having been the youngest one in my class at Bryn Mawr, and having started my life over after Don died, and several times since, writing travel for the Wall Street Journal Europe, my first real job since I was 20, when I had a brief run in the NBC Comedy Development Program, where I shared office space with Woody Allen, who was already smarter than I-- as he came in only on the day we got our checks, while I wrote a sitcom, songs, or a musical almost daily.)  So I made this date with Liz, which I did not want to re-set even though it was Yom Kippur, on which I almost never eat, though I am far from an observant Jew, or a steadfast observant anything, though Don said I should put in my reunion update that I was "a Quaker -Buddhist-Jew-- that'll really give them something to puzzle out at Bryn Mawr."
   Anyway I went to Swifty's. and she wasn't there, having apparently cancelled last night, but I didn't pick up the message, since most of the calls I've received lately have been disturbing for reasons I hope I am too private to put in a Report, as open(too) as I am.  So being uptown in a neighborhood where I used to live I decided to just wend my way home, chicly dressed as I was, and hoping that God, should He/She be looking, would see that I was making an effort to be present, the best thing I think you can be in this life, even as the mind wanders.
   First I went into the Christian Science Reading Room, to see if something could offer me illumination.  Neither any of their literature nor the messages opened and underlined in the window did it for me.  Then I went into a church-- I am not quite sure what denomination, and let the hymns fall open where they would, seeking guidance for the crap I am going through, and studying the Gothic architecture and the really lovely stained glass.   Then I passed a store called 'Worldly Things,' which was going out of business, and had a sign in its window saying 'The end of Worldly Things,' that I considered perhaps spiritually significant. But going inside, even their sacrifice prices were a bit too worldly.
   So I made my way to Temple Emanuel, where my parents belonged in my youth, and went through the side entrance for those who cannot afford to be in the congregation, passed through the metal detector and set it off with my new hip, and went downstairs, where there were hundreds of seats set up, and only about six or eight people in attendance.  But I heard the sermon from upstairs, and, more important, the singing voices of children, which kind of lifted me.  Then the woman rabbi read a story, but her reading was singsong and less than inspiring, so I left.
   And as I did, I encountered on the sidewalk a very fine-looking young father, holding a three-month old baby in his arms, fortunately a girl, as she had beautiful eyelashes, and it is only right that they should not be wasted on a boy.  "What's her name?" I asked the dad.
    "SYLVIA," he answered, immediately balming my soul, and giving my heart hope. For that, as my friends know, is the name of my musical, or was -- it is now
"SYLVIA WHO?"  And that is the reason I am back in New York, as the only really good thing about the economy is it's right for my musical.  It is the tale, begun long ago, but because of the way things are now, being timely and truly pertinent-- inspired by my mother-- of a widow whose husband leaves her a co-op on Park Avenue, and just enough money to pay the maintenance, so in order to live, in order to eat, she crashes parties, looking for love and free hors d'oeuvres.  That was, of course, what the late Helen Schwamm, aka Mom, did, except that in her case love came along a lot but never settled, though she was oft commemorated by Liz.  Nor did she have an apartment on Park Avenue, having panicked and sold everything of real value she had, silver, crystal, china, and a gorgeous place with terrace and many rooms on E. 60th Street for $60,000 to a British director whose name I don't remember since he wasn't very good, but struck a fine bargain with a woman who wasn't thinking.  From there she moved to the studio where I live now, as she was kind enough to leave it to me, but sad she divested herself of most everything but the chutzpah to crash parties.
    As old friends know I was originally a songwriter, (Frank Loesser said "Kid, you're the biggest talent since me.)  But Don told me early in our marriage: "You mix people up: you write plays and songs and poems and movies and books, and people are only comfortable if they can pigeonhole you.  So do one thing and one thing only and then you can surprise them."  So I wrote twelve books and figuring I had made my point, presented my musical to Jimmy Nederlander who rasped: "You're a bookwriter! What are you doing writing a musical?"
   So it's been a very long struggle to get people to listen.  The songs are, understandably, the kind of songs that used to be, because that's who Sylvia is. But they're good, and the lyrics say something, and the wonderful Rosemary Clooney whom I didn't know liked them so much she recorded them for me in exchange for sandwiches for the musicians.  Then one day during my recent sojourn in LA, as I swam in the pool at the Mosaic, an old friend appeared and said "I haven't forgotten about SYLVIA."  She would like to establish herself as a producer, is very sharp, and has the wherewithal and connections to do it.  But she isn't well, so I am, of course, praying for her good health.
  We'll see.  Meanwhile, there WAS that baby outside the temple.  You just never know when the signs mean something.  At least one can hope so.  Or, as Blanche DuBois might have said, slightly rewritten, "Sometimes there's God so slowly."