Sunday, December 30, 2012

Oh Dad, Great Dad

    I am pretending that Mark Twain was my father.
His autobiography lies on the footstool beside my bed, his fiercely dark gaze fixing mine, and I sort of hear him counseling me about what to do about my children, and what he says is "Fuck 'em." I think compassion was in all likelihood one of his short suits, so busy was he making the world a brighter place by being as sharp as he was, and dedicated to his own words. Warner Berthoff, my American Lit professor at Bryn Mawr, gave me an A+, many years after my graduation, for my "Mark Twain essay" in my novel, Kingdom Come, in which I have the great man cursing what he refuses to acknowledge are the Heavens in the Afterlife where he is consigned to the Other Place, the one for the Nonbelievers.
    I always believed Mark Twain would have been a friend of mine.  When Robert was in graduate school, coming to visit me as I was struggling to make a life for myself as a hard-working widow, renting an upmarket slum in the Hamptons, trying to write yet another novel, I said to him on the phone before he arrived: "I have a surprise for you." He said, dazzlingly on target, "We're having dinner with Kurt Vonnegut." Stunned, I asked, "How did you know that?" And Robert said, "Well I knew he was out there, and if anyone could smoke him out, it would be you."
    In fact, in Truth, I would rather say, Vonnegut, unknown to me personally but understandably a hero of mine as a deeply humanistic and gifted writer, had stood in a forum of writers and editors written about in The New York Times, and said "Today is a very sad day in literary history: a publisher has turned against a writer."  Doubleday had just sued me as a result of the libel suit against me by Paul Bindrim, the fraudulent, self-aggrandizing(I can call him now fearlessly, as he is dead) psychologist who conducted nude encounter marathons in Topanga Canyon at the end of the 60s, in one of which I had fictionally(I must hurry to say) placed my novel TOUCHING.  I had set out intending to make it my MADAME BOVARY, to prove I was a serious writer, after the sexy success of THE PRETENDERS.  Bindrim, when I attended his marathon had said "Well now that you've written the world's sexiest bestseller, what are you going to do next?" I told him I didn't know.  "I think you should write about what I'm doing here," he grandstanded.
    At the time I attended the marathon, he was bald and clean shaven, and had a Master's Degree.  When I wrote the novel I gave my protagonist a great white fox fur hat of hair and a white beard, so he looked like Santa Claus, and made him a doctor.  Bindrim sued me, saying I had ruined his nude encounter business by looking at it with a scathing eye, which I confess I did big time, as having experienced the haphazard and dangerous way he dealt with people in the pool, I was frightened for them.  The case took seven years to come to court, during which time Bindrim, in his determination to become more identifiable as the character in the novel, got a PhD from International College in Westwood,a mail-order school above the Bruin movie theater, grown a gigantic beard, let the fringe of his hair grow long, the years had turned it white, so he looked like Santa Claus.  Hr had, quite simply, become the character in the book. It was, as my attorney who didn't prepare because he regarded the whole thing as laughable, the dictionary definition of 'Fiasco,' sure it would be thrown out of court.  But it wasn't, and Tony Liebig, my lawyer, had a testy history with the judge, the Santa Monica jury was madder at me, a housewife, for going to a nude encounter than they were at Bindrim for giving it, and I lost.
    Doubleday, my then publisher,  had up to that time defended me, citing the 1st amendment,  But they then sued me on the basis of the indemnification clause that holds a publisher blameless. At that point we had to homestead our house so they couldn't take it away from us, and my daughter, still a little girl, asked if she would still be able to go to her school, if she would have to leave her friends behind, along with her room.  Robert, even younger, had a bicycle route to deliver the Herald-Examiner when I was on the front page.
Vonnegut, whom I did not know, having defended me publicly, becoming even more heroic in my eyes, and I later met at a party--it was always surprising to me at that point that there were any festive occasions. But I was kind of a shadowy literary celebrity at that point, so Gay Talese, a sort of friend, invited me to an evening where Jerzy Kozinski lolled on a couch, slicing a pear with a knife, as if in an outtake from REDS.  Vonnegut marveled over the accuracy of my recall-- Bindrim had tape recorded the marathon, and during the trial compared the dialogue from the novel on a blackboard with what had actually transpired, and it was eerily alike, as I did have great Recall. He asked me if I had had a tape recorder hidden under my blouse.
    "Kurt," I said.  "I didn't even have a blouse." With that, we became friends.
    When I moved to the Hamptons, part of my gypsying as I sought my meant-to-be nesting place after Don died, Vonnegut was kind to me.  Jill, his in-my-opinion crazy wife had left him for a good friend of his, so he was quite lost, and, it seemed frightened.  Although our relationship was tentative, he appeared grateful for it.    When I told him on the phone my son was coming to visit, he  said "Bring him around; we'll have dinner."
    So we did.  "I thought it was like being with Mark Twain," Robert said afterwards, respecting me as he never had before.
    If it was truly like that in fact, then Twain was not that communicative in person.  But you could tell he was a great guy.  Now he lies on the back of his autobiography, face up, glaring glance fixed on me.  And in the absence of God in whom he did not believe, I look to him for support and strength in this very difficult time. I am imagining him as my father, giving me the guts and tenacity you need in this life, if you are to survive, much less prevail.  
    Kurt and I stayed friends, though distant ones once Jill came back-- she told Rex Reed many years later after Kurt was gone "that woman tried to fuck my husband," which was as far from the truth as she was manipulative. Kurt was ready to tuck it in by the time we became sort of close, visibly intimidated by her,  grateful for her return, scared, I believe, that he would die alone.  I invited him to come be a guest for the big anniversary of the LA library that I was trying to be of some help putting together.  The lure they offered was the home, for his individual honoree dinner, of a society woman who collected Lincoln's tableware.  The very plates.  That didn't do it.  "I would be too sad," Kurt said.
    "Why?" I asked.
    "Because he's dead," said Kurt.
I pointed out to him that even had he not been assassinated, Lincoln would still be dead.  But that was no consolation, and he didn't come.
    Sometimes, in what is left of my life, I suffer over relationships I didn't work to the possible maximum, people I loved and admired with whom I had the luck-- grace it seems, even-- to become friends.  People like Cary Grant, a fantasy phone friendship-- he was a phone lover-- I mean he loved talking on the phone, not me-- and called me all the time, to read me good reviews of my work,("Do you mind?" he lilted, and then read it to me.) We would  talk about our daughters who were the same age, or just chat.  Then there was Stanley Kubrick, "29 year-old Stanley Kubrick" as Billy Wilder was to refer to him all through his life, though I met him he was really around 29, and at the beginning of his productive genius. when I was privileged and damned to be an unrealized, badly used part of what he was up to.  He and Kristiana, his beautiful wife, were at my wedding to Don.  My new husband at the time was the WOR producer televising the first season of the Jets.  Stanley took him aside on that occasion, telling him he should stop following the football and keep the camera on the line, insisting that was the most interesting part of the game.  And Don said to him; "Stanley, if you'll let me run a credit at the end, 'Directed by Stanley Kubrick,' I'll put the camera anywhere you want." 
    All these exchanges, among other grand and special ones I am remembering.  But none impacts me more or makes me feel better than the spare words I had from Kurt, at our last lunch.   "Women are resourceful," he said to me.  "Look at you-- you're resourceful."  
    Oh God, I hope so.
    And I am sorry Mark Twain didn't believe in You.   Though I am sure You must have believed in him, or he wouldn't have been so talented.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Great Evening in the Theater, Make that GREAT! underlined

    So just when I was wondering why I had moved back to New York to fill my soul with theater again, having been so disappointed with everything I've seen, and finding everything over-rated, I have been lifted and spiritually resurrected by THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD.  It is so charming, so funny and enjoyable, that it made me remember why I loved the theater.
   To begin with, the whole interplay between cast and audience that happens before the official start of the show, is so engaging, it brings the audience to life, making them a part of it.  (I except the people who were sitting next to my friend Susan, who were texting and checking their cell phones during the performance, and whom, in spite of my having achieved or trying to achieve spiritual serenity, I did wish dead.  Or at least out of the theater.  I imagine this to be a generational difference, but I do wish the texters of the world would move to another planet.)  
    But back to joy, which prevailed.  The sets are so good I could have moved to the streets depicted on the drop curtain.  The cast is flawless-- most especially the always riveting and energetic Chita Rivera, who herself is a living monument to talent and drive in women.  The young man who plays the young man who doesn't count, whose name I never found out, is particularly memorable except that having never found out his name, I can't remember it.  But it was a treat and a half.  Maybe two.
   The ingenious creator of the evening, Rupert Holmes, who did book, music AND lyrics is unbelievably gifted, and obviously stalwart, as we understand how hard it is for someone that multi-talented not to scare people away, in a society and profession where people are more comfortable when they can pigeonhole, put you in a particular pocket.  He has broken out of any and all of them.  A FANTASTIC EVENING!  Go go go.
    Happy holidays to all, which will be enhanced if you go see this.  xx

Friday, December 14, 2012


    I cried from the beginning of Lincoln, the new movie, for two reasons: one: a friend I admired, a critic who hated the movie, I realized I would lose because I liked it, and two: when I was two years old and three months old I recited the Gettysburg Address, which made me a star in Pittsburgh. The words, tumbling through my soul, must have tumbled through that torrential time, with parents who despised and were violent with each other, when I didn't yet understand what life was about (do I now?)  But I got that being bright and commanding attention could get you something.
   The  movie itself broke my heart, because much as I would like to dismiss Steven Spielberg as the greatest filmmaker of our time, there is just no doing so.  I can be personally heartbroken because I had the curious privilege of being at a party in Malibu when my son, who seemed like he had all the gifts at six, was in a corner with Spielberg the whole time.  And when, some years later, I encountered Spielberg again, I reminded him of the seeming idiocy of that moment, and he said, when I asked him why he had spent that whole time with my son, "I remember: he was the most interesting person at the party."
    The years have splintered into the reality of life, and everything is shattered and disappointing,  But there is no doubt that this is a magnificent movie.
     And there is even less doubt that life is not fair.  That we all come in with our gifts, and our moxie, our ability to fight to change things, make them better.  Some of us give up.  Some of us stand against what seem impenetrable odds, and do it anyway.  It is a privilege to have lived in the same country as Abraham Lincoln, and to speak the same language.  Surely goodness and mercy shall do whatever it is they do.  But I am not so sure that we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.  But it is a great movie.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The One and Only Mel

    Having been through some arduous and difficult days, but believing as I do in a benign Universe, in which you are rewarded for not cracking or trying to retaliate for pain caused, my trust was vindicated last night when HBO aired a special just for me: Mel Brooks.  Mel and Annie, the wonderful actress Anne Bancroft, were very close friends of Don and mine in the early days of their and our courtships.  Annie and I would go for long walks in the city, and she would rhapsodize about how much she loved him-- that sometimes she would check his breathing as he slept to make sure he was still alive, because she couldn't believe how happy she was.  
    Mel chased Don around our kitchen on 72nd St. telling him every line, twist and turn of The Producers, which he was cooking in his wonderfully crazy head at the time.  We were very much in love with both of them, and Mel said "Isn't it wonderful when two people can love each other and be together and don't feel they have to get married in this society,"-- it was the early 60s. Then we got married and he stopped speaking to us until they got married, too. 
    I was especially in love with Annie because she was, I thought,the most gifted comedienne in the theater, and I wanted to write a play for her, which I did.  When written and  ready for production, I gave it to her, but she said "I can't do it.  I'm doing The Devils."  "Why?" I asked her. 
"I've never played a hunchbacked nun before," she said.  "Besides, who knew you'd be finished writing it in three weeks?"
    The play, under the crazy aegis of Hilly Elkins as producer and the somewhat urgent and patently dramatic circumstances-- I was very pregnant with Madeleine-- was in Philadelphia for out-of-town tryout, a standard at the time as was pretty much the budget, $150,000, so you know how long ago it was-- when Mel came down to help us with some comic fillips.  Don and I remembered having laughed hysterically at everything he said, but being unable to recall a single do-able suggestion.  The show, with the ill-chosen title, THE BEST LAID PLANS, had received favorable notices in Philly, "a hit with fixing" said the reviews.  But the fixes that Hilly wanted, which was to turn the heroine, who pretends to be a drug-addicted sociopath in order to win the love of a disturbed playwright, were intolerable to me, as he wanted her to actually do drugs onstage, and it was Philadelphia, for God's sake.  So I refused, and Hilly said "Bitch... you'll change it or I'm closing the play," and Don said "Hilly, you're talking to a woman with a baby in her belly," and Hilly said "Cunt, you'll do what I say," and Don said "Hilly, you're talking to my wife. One more word and I'll have to kill you," and Hilly said, "You and what army?" and BAM, he was down, and Don was on top of him.  Paul Bogart, then(but not for much longer) the director came over to the battle and took off Don's glasses, so Hilly's flailing wouldn't hurt Don.  All of it observed by Mel.
    I was in the hospital in New York giving birth when Bogart was fired and Arthur Storch, a mistake, replaced him, and made everybody so nervous with so many arbitrary changes they all went up on their lines opening night.  My obstetrician wanted to go to the opening, so he let me out. I got to the theater in time for the curtain going down and the last laugh, which wasn't there.  So I knew it had been a disaster.  Mel and Annie drove me back to the hospital, and Mel said, "Well, you had two things happen this week.  If one of them had to be less than perfect, if your daughter had been born with six toes and two noses... that would have been okay.  What mattered was the show."  I laughed so hard he saved me
     They visited us a few days later at home, and Annie read the reviews--there were seven newspapers at the time-- out loud.  She spit at them, literally, and said "You're never as good as they say, and never as bad.  My aunt says that's why there's chocolate and vanilla."
   Then they moved to Hollywood, and so did we, and as such things go, we drifted. But the love for them never did, and we rejoiced at Mel's becoming a comic force in films, though we both were somewhat intimidated, as happens in LA when loved friends hit it, which they obviously had, between Annie's great success as Mrs. Robinson, and people really getting Mel.  When Annie, who'd told me how busy she was on her one visit to us in LA, opened in The Little Foxes in New York, I went to a restaurant after I'd seen the play, and ran into Frank Langella, who'd been another fun friend-- they had played clever games in their Village house, where he was best at Dictionary-- and we talked about the play.
    At two o'clock in the morning, the phone rang, and it was Annie, breathing fire.  "You were at the theatre," she said, "and you didn't come backstage!!!"  I tried to explain to her that I thought she was too busy, sent her flowers, a gift.  But she never forgave me.
    After Don died and I moved to San Francisco, and there was an earthquake, my phone rang, and it was Annie.  "I'm calling everyone I know in the Bay Area to make sure they're all right," she said kindly, and then told me she was going to do a play at Lincoln Center.
    "I'll come see it," I said.
    "Good," she said.  "And afterwards YOU CAN COME BACKSTAGE."
    I did, but it was never the same.  Back in LA I met with Mel at Fox on a project of mine, and Annie came to lunch, a surprise guest.  I wrote something for her that she wanted to do, but we couldn't get it going.  Then I saw her in a restaurant with Mel and asked if I could get together with her, and she said "No," and I saw that her teeth were gray.  And after that came the news that she had cancer.  And then she was gone.
     I saw Mel a couple of times after that-- he was always ready with tips and wanted one or two from me.  I didn't see him again until last night.  God, he's funny.
     I know he didn't like getting older.  Some things we talked about in passing underscored that in the show last night.  But I loved it when he said "Look how handsome I was," about himself in an early movie.  
      And he was.  He really was.  But at the time, you couldn't see the forest for the laughs.     

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Jazz High in the Poconos

    So all these years after the demise of the original Birdland, when even the Faux, like Feinstein, have folded their musical tents, true jazz has literally taken to the road.  Down Route 80 to the Delaware Water Gap sits the Deerhead Inn, scene Saturday night of the birthday of the 89th birthday of Bob Dorough, legendary musician-- certainly to me.  When you mention Schoolhouse Rock, which Bob composed, even the twenty year old salesgirl at Banana Republic brightens with recognition.  But he is more, much more than that-- certainly to me.
   When I went to Paris to study music after Bryn Mawr, Bob was playing piano at the Mars Club, a cote to the rue Henri-Etienne, where the greats of the 50s, from Eartha Kitt to Blossom Dearie held sway.  At the time he was accompanying the after-hours singing act of the lead dancer in Porgy and Bess, a tall Kentucky woman who told me she was the daughter of a Cuban and a Watusi warrior, and I believed her, so charismatic and convincing was she.. and not a bad singer.  Her name: Maya Angelou.
     All these years later, Bob, God Bless him, is still warbling away, his rendition of Baltimore Oriole even more moving than was Hoagy Carmichael's.  And around him gather in the white-wooded farm-like splendor (if there can be splendor on farms) of the Deerhead Inn, a cluster of those who love what jazz used to be, and still is, at least here. Peter Grant on drums, John Eckert on trumpet, (passionate!) Tony Marino on heartfelt bass, and Steve Berger sweet on guitar, filled the clearer-than-city air with music on Saturday night.  
     Diana Krall did a hot version of Dorough's great number, "Devil May Care," but there's something pure and electrifying about Bob's own rendition.  Especially against a background of happy locals and dedicated waitstaff bringing spinach pies and salad and booze.  It is curiously uplifting to have this (seemingly) last vestige of Americana full out and free of pretension in this rural setting, one of the few places a real musician can find to hide out in public.
    In an era where you no longer make easy eye contact, as people trip down the sidewalks with glances focussed on their Iphones, it's beyond a gas, and the gas it takes to get there, to come across real musicianship.   Worth the journey.  Really a trip.

Saturday, December 08, 2012


    I had a great editor once, mad as a hatter, but brilliant: Donald (he had a middle initial, I think it was 'I',) Fine.  He had edited James Jones, Norman Mailer, a parade of the Greaties, so in spite of how crazy he was, I admired him, and often listened.  He was also hilariously funny in his insensitive way.  When my husband died, he called me and said "Well, I know you're upset.  But how do you think I feel?  I don't like many men."  So what could I do, but love him?
    When he was sick-- and devastated--- he had sold his publishing company to Hearst, then tried to buy it back, and they locked him out of his offices-- he was in Mount Sinai, dying of cancer, and wouldn't let anybody see him-- I had lunch with Kurt Vonnegut, whom I also loved purely, in spite of the accusations of his mad and cruel wife, and Kurt said to me about Don: "Go see him.  It'll do him good to see a pretty woman."  It was a compliment that reverberated in my soul, as Kurt had never said anything flattering to me, besides that Touching, my controversial novel that brought us together, was "well-written," which, considering the source, sounded to me like a symphony with full orchestra.
     So I'd gone to see Don, who was horrified when I showed up.  He did not quite throw me out of his hospital room.  But the wide-eyed glare that glowered at me was enough to show me what pain he was in, exacerbated by his being so vulnerable, actually embarrassed to be dying, as if there is something shameful about the end of life, especially when you are one who has exercised a lot of control.  I did not stay long, but made a friend of his nurse, so she let me know how he was, as long as he was.
      Don's favorite word was "ineffable."  It meant "unspeakable," or something so powerful that you couldn't say it, as I learned when I looked it up, which I had to as I had never heard it before I met him.  So much of my life since then has been garlanded with the ineffable, that I think of him all the time, which I hope is a fitting memorial.  He was a very little man, but in his nutsy way, a giant.  I wish that there were people like him in publishing today, which is more than a pipe dream.  They would have to be on another planet, considering what publishing has become.
       Don published two novels of mine, Marriage,  which is probably my best, and Romance,  which is fun but lightweight.  He did not have much success with either, as he told me one of his outlets told him "There's a shadow around this author,"-- or a word like shadow that I can't call up right now, that existed because of the lawsuit brought to 'Touching,' which was noisier than ineffable.   The big fat blowhard who conducted those nude encounters in LA that I had used as a setting for what I hoped would be a modern Madame Bovary, Paul Bindrim, a not-quite psychologist who was bald and clean-shaven and a florid egotist, whom I described in his fictional incarnation as "looking like Santa Claus," as far away from the reality as I could conceive, sued me for libel, saying I had ruined his nude-encounter business, because I looked at it with "a scathing eye.'  The case took seven years to come to court, and by that time he had grown a gigantic beard, let the fringe of his hair grow long, time had turned it white, so he looked like Santa Claus. So he had become the character in the book. T
   The jury was madder at me for having gone to a nude encounter than they were at him for giving one, and found against me, an argument that raged all the way to the Supremes.  Off the record which we now can be completely, since he is dead, the man was a sadistic shit, having his cohorts spread-eagle people in the pool and beat on their innards.  It was a frightening experience, and after he died, his obituary included the people he'd driven mad and/or to suicide.  Too many years after the trial, and the subsequent review by the Court, to do me any good.  Or Don Fine either.
       But I am thinking of him so hard now, in the absence of any real heros in the publishing world, or even a few who are less than strong, as we watch what seems to be the death of books.  The stores are gone, except for a few, and when a friend of mine who has leather-bound, signed  first editions that she wanted to sell, and asked for an outlet, the smartest woman I know said "No one wants books anymore."
      Oh it is so sad.  Ineffable, really.  Still, I have the last book I gave to Don Fine, discovered, uncovered, really, after the floods here, when I went down into my basement locker to see if there was any damage.  And there it was, this little book that he would have been brave enough to publish because he really liked my writing, THE DAUGHTER OF GOD.  At the last minute, all those minutes ago, I declined to give it to him, because he wanted my next novel included in the deal, and my lawyer didn't think that was a fair deal.
      So here it is, or here it soon will be: "This time," it begins, "instead of a manger, he was born in Youngstown, Ohio.  And this time he was a girl.  Father always liked a good joke."
      To make it clear: Christ comes back as a woman.  Not a moment too soon.
      I am self-publishing, an expression that sounds horrible to me, but what can you do?  I would dedicate it to Don Fine, but he didn't believe in the Afterlife.  So I am dedicating it to a friend who really believes in this one.
     There is wonderful art, sketches that look to me like they could be by Rembrandt, by my gifted friend Joel, who, for purposes of this book is Joe L.  I hope you will all seek it out, and be happily astonished.  As it turns out, I believe we are all Holy.  Well, maybe not Bindrim.