As my few remaining fans know, my bestseller THE PRETENDERS, (after which the musical group named themselves though I didn't know that till many years later, when one of them told me,) was a fictionalized version of the life of Billy Rose, the great short man who secretaryed to Bernard Baruch, married a number of prominent, taller women, including Eleanor Holm and Fanny Brice, and dated Sue Mengers, my best friend in New York, until she handled people who were too famous, and became one of them herself. Had she known there would be a play about her starring Bette Midler, she probably would have lived longer, and negotiated a better deal with God.
The sadness is with celebrity, people forget about you the moment they can stop dropping your name, unless of course it can get you money or a better seat in the theatre, which today no longer means that much, the seats are so uncomfortable in New York, it almost makes you give up the wish to be a hit on Broadway. So it is that I am happily resettled in Southern Cal, where I have set up my office in the French bakery that picks up Starbuck's signal, as the AT&T man on the phone was a fiend in Manila who tried to cheat me out of a few hundred bucks saying he would manage to get the initiation fee cancelled, "probably," which the technician installing my TV told me meant I would get cheated later. So now I am the oldest person in this venue, where I can have coffee(Decaf) while I write, and remember Billy Rose, who said to Sue Mengers "Put your hand on my cock" which even she found offensive. I went out with him, too, and he looked in my closet, saw the negligee my mother had bought for me wholesale, with feathers all up and down the front and said to me "Who are you saving that for, Robert Goulette?"
He pronounced the final tees as though they were there which probably few if any of you will remember they weren't, as it was French, so he was Goul-ay. Billy actually had a great naked statue by Rodin it was, in his front hallway on Fifth Avenue, and said to me as I gazed up at it: "I know what you're thinking: you'd like to screw him, right?" A truly loathsome little man, except for his brilliance which also might have been a lie, as what he knew better even than how to do shorthand speedily was how to steal from people. But he did give me my big bestseller so I can do nothing but thank him. And I did manage to give the character in the novel enough depth so people were moved, if they weren't just looking for sexual arousal, as it was a landmark in that category, and you never would have known I went to Bryn Mawr.
As it turns out, that is the thing in my life that I am proudest of having done, as it strengthened me as nothing else has. A lovely Japanese woman who is writing a piece on Perry Lane, a little street in Palo Alto where hippies lived in the Sixties, before, I believe, they were actually called hippies, and were, on the whole, more interesting than when they became totally stoned, and interviewed me on the phone was visibly, audibly impressed with how much color I gave her on Ken Kesey, a great friend of mine when I went to graduate school at Stamford whose writing program was incredibly overrated, Wallace Stegner being a pretentious, self- aggrandizing man. Kesey said to me "If it weren't for the Honor System, I never would have made it through." Cheating was outside the law for me, and so I never gave him my soul, which I was usually a little too quick to share, but I did give him my body, once only, and he was not very good. He gave me my first inhale of grass, and even stoned his lovemaking seemed not all that erotic. In the middle or end which came very quickly, there was a knock on my front door on College Avenue, and when I said "Who is it?" the answer came "Police"" and Kesey was out of there and bolting over my back fence and several adjoining yards. Turned out the cops were there because they had found my driver's license that had been stolen, but Kesey didn't stay to find that out. A remarkable athlete, if not an impressive sexual one.
But we stayed friends and went to the vigil outside San Quentin for Caryl Chessman. When it was all over we drove down the peninsula and followed a rude truck driver whose rear doors were coming open for several miles, Kesey falling behind because he knew the road was rough, so the road was soon peppered with cartons of ice cream, and that became the ice cream scene in Kingdom Come, my novel that everybody wanted to buy until they saw it was easier to steal, and it was, after all, Hollywood.
But back to the vigil, where Marlon Brando came to protest the coming execution of Caryl Chessman. Brando's attorney said on the fading loudspeaker that if they failed to change the mind of the governor to stay the execution, Chessman had agreed to let Marlon make the movie of his life, which of course he never did. I call him Marlon because I actually, truly knew him, my loved friend Janice Mars being one of his cast-offs, introducing me to him one of my vacations from Bryn Mawr, saying "I want you to meet someone," not telling me who it was. His apartment was on 57th Street, one of those buildings now being obscured by all the construction on West 57th street by all those horrible builders I would like to think are Iranians, but they are, sadly, Jews.
So as we went up in the elevator, Janice and I, and got to the top floor, I heard someone calling out "Eyyyy, Janice!!" and my heart near stopped beating. It was of course Himself, still trim and breathtakingly, animalisticly handsome. She introduced me, and he said "Tell me about yourself, kid."
Barely able to breathe, much less speak, I managed as best I could, and when I ended with where I went to school, he warbled affectedly, a la Katharine Hepburn, "OOOOOOooo, Baryn Mahwarr." One of the most memorable days of my life, naturally, and am glad I can still remember it in full detail. He was much more adorable than he was outside San Quentin, where, as journalists trailed him walking along the sea-bank, he said, surly, "Do you mind, I want to take a leak."
He was much more lovable in Summer Stock, where I had been invited along for his production of Shaw's "Arms and the Man," which he directed, badly, and starred in as Sergei. He was not funny. He never could do comedy.
But of course I loved him along with all members of the company, old friends he was giving a break to, as most of them couldn't get work, including his stand-in, the wife of one of his best friends. He was a generous spirit, as long as you weren't one of his wives. I am sorry he got fat.
Myself, I was fighting weight at the time, having the same legs I do now, and 182 pounds, so all that was really visible of my face were my eyes. I ate breakfast with him in the countrified mess hall, and could barely swallow what little was in my bowl. He said "Whatsa matter, kid? Oh, I see. You're on a diet." Adding, "It's okay. I just think most girls are prettier thin."
One might have said the same about men.
He said to Janice the last time he spoke to her, as she recounted to me, not long before he died, that he had decided to live to a hundred and ten. She asked him why. "Curiosity," he said.
Then they both signed off with their usual affectionate Farewell.
"Fuck you," she said. "Fuck you," he replied, and hung up.
If he had known he was going to die, I think he would have said "I love you."