Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Crossing That Bridge when I Came to It

I once crossed a bridge that was crossing the Seine, and Orson Welles was on it.  I had ambition then: I was in Paris, and I wanted to save Marlon Brando, Judy Garland or Orson Welles, all of whom were supposed to be there at the time. So I could hardly control the beating of my twenty-year old heart when I saw, just footsteps away, Orson Welles.  But as I came closer, it was clear that he was talking to himself.  Mumbling something.  I should have strained my ears and clung aurally to what it was he had to say, revolutionary, I imagine now I hoped it might have been.  But all I did was keep on walking, heartbroken, I must think in so far distant retrospect.  Crazy he could have been.  In a sweet way, probably.  Another dream shattered,
     I don't know how many of those there were, broken dreams about celebrities I worshipped.   Judy died on her own, on an evening I was holding hands, we can think of them as, with Danny Kaye.  I was in my mother's apartment, in love with, or rather, smitten with a jerk who probably reminded me of my father.  I told the man's daughter later she was wrong to imagine I had been in love with her father, but of course she was right.  She had read my novel TOUCHING, saw the character and said it had to be based on her father.  I said "there are a lot of men like him," and she said "Not that insensitive."  She was brighter than I had ever supposed.
   Marlon Brando I had a lot of time with, if you consider hanging out with his longtime friend and one of his leading ladies, Janice Mars, over several years, a lot of time.  She played Grushenka in Arms and the Man, which he directed, fairly well, though he starred in it badly,  in Falmouth, Massachusetts, rehearsing the Shaw play by day while his best friend from "boyhood," in Libertyville, Illinois-- they actually called it that, their Boyhood-- he and Wally Cox, was playing evenings with Sam Levene in Three Men on a Horse, with Maureen Stapleton, my roommate for that adventure. I had a moment of friendship with Wally that endured, re-surfacing when I went to a party given by the producer of Hollywood Squares on Valentine's Day, 1973.  "There you are," Wally said. "REAL PERSON!  I've been wondering what happened to you."  We spent the evening together.  The next day Wally was dead.  It was like a gift I was given before he left, to encounter him again for the first time since that amazing summer.  1953 it had to have been.        I was still at Bryn Mawr then, and Janice, who had a cabaret act, wanted my song, SEX.  Everybody wanted it-- it was one of those numbers.  So to lure me, she had invited me to come visit her in Arms and The Man at Falmouth, where I got to watch rehearsals, the Great Man combusting as he directed.  "This is Shaw, for Christ's sake," he cried to the set designer.  "It could be Gorki!  It looks like the Lower Depths!"  I was thrilled that he seemed to have intellect, even thought he wasn't very good in the play,-- he never could do comedy.  But he made me incredibly uncomfortable as I worshipped him from across the breakfast table-- "You fin'ly on a diet?" he asked, as I all but choked on my three blueberries.
    I saw him a time or two after that-- in his house, where Sam Gilman,  his longtime good friend the actor, not as talented as he was loyal-- invited me.  By that time I had already been to France to visit Marlon's cast-off fiancee, Josette Mariani, later married to Christian, an actor who played with Brando in The Young Lions.  I suppose now I must have been obsessed with him, an obsession that ended more than abruptly when I saw who/what he had become, almost invisible beneath all the layers.  His son with 
one of his other cast-offs, was also named Christian.  He had Asian eyes, and was enormously fat as Brando was as well by then. I believe he might have been the Brando son who committed suicide.
  I have no idea why I am remembering this now, or am trying to remember it.  It is a very gray day here, and I can see across the rooftops facing my balcony, and everything on the rooftop opposite is really ugly.  Green-painted, peeling metals chimneys, and ropes, strung across to what seems no particular purpose.  I spent a lot of the day foraging, digging through the final work of and memories of Kurt Vonnegut, who said to me "Women are resourceful.  Look at you: you're resourceful."
   It doesn't really seem so today.

Monday, January 27, 2014


Cary Grant, still my favorite name to drop, even though my friend Joanna said she knew someone who actually didn't know who he was, told me when we were first friends that I shouldn't use his name in a reverential manner in a book, as people would soon forget about him, though I couldn't believe it at the time.  Anyway, he told me once: "Hate will keep you alive longer than love will."  He based this in large part on his own mother, who, amazingly, was not proud of him.  She wanted him to dye his hair, because his letting it go white "made her look older."
   I am calling up his very handsome memory because my stepmother, Selma, one of the most unloving people ever to live-- she beat my father when he was sick and ailing,-- the woman 
caregiver telling me of the abuse fired the next day, --has finally died, which should set us all free.  Instead, the bank, which has for all these decades managed his money and profited from it, the trustee benefitting, having a full life, has informed me he wishes to step away.  Oy.  There are some moments when only Yiddishisms will do.
    So what should prove to be a relief for me and my recalcitrant children will probably just provide more frustration and anguish, sending her grinning into the Afterlife if there is one.  If there was one thing Selma's life exemplified it was how not to love.  My mother met her when she was a guest in a resort where Helen, Mom, at her most glamorous, was Social Director, and they became friends. Selma cut her husband's shirts into a hundred and twenty pieces each, an act of creative vengeance that captured my mother's attention, and probably her dark respect, as unforgiving as my mother was, she was a child of the Depression, and so respected property.  She introduced Selma to Lew, my dad, expecting they would kill each other.  Instead, because Selma had allergies,  they moved to Tucson, where, failed as he had been in his various careers -- pharmacist, lieutenant in the medical purchasing branch of the army, a commission my mother got him working as a secretary for the Army so he could pay child support for me-- he subdivided the desert and made it bloom, becoming the Mayor, and a Republican.  He had not wanted to marry a woman with two children, so he made Selma give her son to his father, which she did, although the father was supposedly a ne'er do well.
     The child support that Lew owed her for me-- I think it was a few dollars a week, had still not been paid when Don and I got married, (I was 29.)  Helen was still suing him for it the day of our wedding. April 26th 1960something.  We had to get married on a Sunday, so the process server, seated outside the White and Gold Suite at the Plaza where the wedding took place, could not serve Daddy with the subpoena until midnight, when he could.  By that time of course Lew had fled. 
      It was a colorful event, attended by college friends, some Pittsburgh family, Don's immediate family, and the Stanley Kubricks, at the time still close friends(I had written the first draft of Lolita for Stanley, stepping away from it when he told me he believed it to be a "love story."  I had thought it was a comedy.)
  We re-engaged as friends when Don and I went to the first screening of Doctor Strangelove, where I told Don Stanley would be, -- "Stop being a writer," Don said.  But there Stanley was, counting the house at four in the afternoon, on a bus counter-- click click click, I could hear him in the darkness.  "We just broke the house record for the Criterion," he said to me, unsurprised that I was there.  He and Cristina then came to the wedding.  At the reception, when he found out Don was producing the Jets' games, he told him he should not follow the ball but keep the camera on the line.  And Don said; "Stanley, if you'll let me run a credit at the end, 'Directed by Stanley Kubrick, I'll keep the camera anywhere you say."  
   It was a wonderful day even though my mother was suing my father of child support for me, and I was twenty-nine.
   So Selma has finally left us, which should leave me and my feckless spawn an inheritance, though it will not be easy to get, as nothing is easy in this world unless you are Rand Paul, which should tell you something about what has happened to America.  Oy.  There it is again.

Saturday, January 18, 2014


So I just got an e-mail from my buddy Jordan telling me they are reviving the musical of TITANIC.   My mother, who seemed indestructible, saw it.  She had checked herself out of the hospital, where she didn't care to be any longer, because everybody there was sick or old, two things she never cared to acknowledge she might be one day, oblivious or  blind to the fact that that day had come, ate dinner, went to see TITANIC, went home, went to bed, and never got up.  I said once, glibly, I suppose, since I have a tendency to do that from time to time, that we all might hope for such an ending, but maybe a better musical.
   This was too easily said on my part-- the relief I probably felt that she did not have a protracted exit, since she couldn't stand the idea of being old, was doubtless ameliorated by my having been able to avoid the actual pain of witnessing her departure.  My wonderful friend Deanna, everybody's wonderful friend who is lucky enough to know her, having been called by Jeannie, the unbelievable (there are Blessings) so-called "housekeeper" at the Hampshire House to let me know.  I was in England, or maybe it was Ireland, writing travel for the Wall Street Journal Europe at the time--I can remember the table where I was sitting having supper, in a small restaurant on a street I can still walk along in my mind, though I can't call up right away exactly what town it was.  But I remember getting the news,  ordering something I thought would please my mother, toasting her, and writing a poem saluting her, and I still have the poem though the place where it was written eludes me, as names have a way of eluding me lately, which I hope is indicative of losing only brain cells I really don't need anymore.  
      But as I said, that might have been unfair, saying we might hope for a better musical, because I never saw it.  And now I will be able to.  It is of course my hope that the better musical that precedes my ending might be mine, that dream I have been pursuing for what seems and probably is the best portion of my adult life, so many years of it spent writing novels, not enough years of it spent in being a partner for Don, raising children I loved, and having great and inspiring animals ("But you've been very lucky with your dogs," my Aunt Rita said, when I expressed sorrow, after Don's death, at how it was going with my kids, a title I actually thought I might put on a book, it was so funny, and would, I was sure, inspire everybody to buy it, except they would feel guilty, so there went that.) 
    These have not been fallow years, creatively, and for that I am more than grateful.  But I look forward to seeing TITANIC, because I want to know if it was worth the last night of my mother's life, and if it was as good as some people said, unfairly sunk too soon, as it were.  And it seems thoughtful of the Weisslers, who have a name that is easier to remember and less kind in local theatrical lore, to bring it back, as I am in the midst of feeling Angst about the musical of"The Bridges of Madison Country," a book I struggled not to loathe though I couldn't help myself, but liked the movie anyway, as forced as Meryl Streep's accent tried not to seem-- she just couldn't help being wonderful, except when she played Shirley MacLaine's daughter.
     It is not an easy world, even when you have studied with Jack, and understand with every fiber of your being that we are not in competition with each other, but only given the task of letting the garbage fall away and becoming ourselves. And to do that, we only have to let go, and allow.  Still, there is the task of Overcoming-- 1) all the anxieties created by New York 2) the impossibility of anyone else being in the hurry you are, because you have waited so long and Patience was always your short suit, and that is your True Job, learning how to wait, a skill you have never mastered, even though you have learned to gaze out a back window that faces a rooftop so cluttered with ugly green metal chimneys and ropes that it takes away the majesty of the word "rooftop," and seems only the step over to the towering and cheesy glass building on 57th Street that the crane fell off of, and in the bar behind the Essex House next door I met an engineer who, after a few drinks, said he had worked on that and the materials were so cheap that it could be brought down by a high wind, which I understand we can expect one of these unlovingly un-environmentally conscious years in spite of what Mary Matalin says-- is she that tight-lipped because of Botox or being a Republican?
    Well, clearly I have paid little attention to Mrs. Berthoff, the wonderful writing teacher I had at Bryn Mawr who told me to be careful of run-on sentences. But it is Life I am puzzling over at this point in mine.  The big question: Do we come in with a Destiny?  Do I get to go to the opening of mine?
    Jeannie said when she found my mother, she had her hand in the air, as though she were holding a pencil, about to write something. Was it a review of Titanic?  

Tuesday, January 07, 2014


As a phrase of a tune will bring back a melody that was central to a  romance, fantasy, whatever we had then that seemed so meteoric at the time, so it was that last night I had jolting occasion to remember what I thought would be a Great Love.  I wrote once in one of my novels, I would assume at a time I was still making an effort to be sexually startling, that one of my characters had "a voice that went between a woman's legs." 
    Soon after Don died, and I had not of course had enough of him in my life--- he was only 45-- and I was afraid that sufficient sex had eluded me, a gorgeous actor (he WAS, he WAS, and greatly gifted as well, having portrayed sexily one of the great religious figures of all time, and very well, too, as he was as gifted as he was beautiful) called me to ask me out to dinner.  I assumed it was a kindly sympathy call-- there were a number of those, even in Beverly Hills, from a friend of Don's who had not been all that friendly to me, who was being thoughtful.  So I went out to dinner with him, in a restaurant that was very fashionable, and we had a lovely meal, not that personal, but not that distant.  I was very touched, especially as he came from a different civilization, one that has always seemed more civilized than ours.  And then he went back.
       Some years passed, during which the emotional upheaval that was like a slow-moving volcanic eruption overtook me, I moved around a great deal, coming to rest on a cliff above La Jolla.  There where the loneliness I imagined I had avoided by changing perches all but swallowed me up, I got a phone call from him, from late at night in his favorite gentleman's club.  Besides his dazzling good looks, he had quite the best voice I had ever heard, a voice, I may have written at a more ambitious time, that went between a woman's legs, deep and velvet with innuendo.  In no time at all, the rates being what they were, the innuendo was stripped away.
     And there came there then the hottest pitches I had ever heard, obscenities so silken, as he told me what he would like to do me, and where, and how, and in front of whom, they seemed like poetry.  Especially in that voice, and at those rates. 
     The calls came nightly then.  Those of you who have known me for a very long time may have had the cold and drafty pleasure of visiting me on those-- well, they weren't quite ramparts, I don't think, but they were the tops of a cliff where the sun for some reason never hit, and they were bleak, as well as cold, and the house had no insulation, and I was frightened about money, so was sparing with the heat, heating the pool while I slept so I could hit it at six in the morning for a swim that would energize me for the battle of returning to life.  I would say check out Downton Abbey and young widowhood, but last night's return to TV was curiously unmoving and boring. So I will reference my own story.
   There I was, caught at what now looks to be a quite young age, alone, widowed, atop a sunless cliff looking down at the sea, with only my little dog and this really sexy man on the telephone.  And as he was bright as he was beautiful and sonorous, and there were dashes of wit in-between the smut, what could I do but listen?  (I did in truth, later, make creative use of it, as I try to make use of all interesting moments in my life in my writing, repeating all of his lewd suggestions, in full detail, in The Princess and The Pauper, the novel I was writing at the time, attributing them to a brash and horny character. (I speak of that novel unashamedly, as it was really funny and is doubtless most likely not even available from Alibris for $0.99, the fate of my books once I stopped larding them with gratuitous sex, which in books is usually the most profitable kind.) And so it kept up, as I imagined, did he.
     And then he returned to Beverly Hills.  And called me.  And did his number, now become a concert piece.
     "Why don't you come down here, " I finally said, since we could now make it a reality.
     He never called again.
     I saw him last night on television, and had difficulty remembering his name.  I am circumspect about not mentioning it, as he is still alive.  Sort of.
     I wrote a little poem about the whole episode that I cannot recall, except for the last couplet:
     For lust and thrust do pass, and Time has shown
     They only want to do it on the phone.

Friday, January 03, 2014


There is something overpoweringly literary, Hemingwayesque, but  at the same time very small town about New York in its first great snowstorm of 2014.  The preparations and warnings and seeming reaching out in camaraderie were everywhere apparent.  For me it seemed an Event, as it has been decades since I was in an actual snowstorm, and the feeling of Community, that which I have so long pursued that has for an equal amount of time eluded me, seemed apparent, even on TV, where everyone suggested reaching out to those in need.  Nice.
   It seemed especially nice for new mayor Bill De Blasio, who was no sooner inaugurated, family on hand,  than he faced his first crisis, which made him look very Mayoral, and probably excited the envy of Bloomberg, who didn't get a chance to look… oh, how shall I put this…? Big. Anyway, I think it was probably all handled very well, but how else would I feel from inside my very sheltered apartment, where I was urged to stay the whole time, and sometimes I do listen.
    All of this, strangely, has set me thinking about Stanley Kubrick, once my very dear friend, because the one thing I am tempted to go outside for is to go see Gravity.  My son, about whom I have been requested not to write, but how can I help myself, said it is a great pity that Stanley can not be here to see the film, he would be so impressed.  Having been through Lolita with Stanley, and having been reunited with him for Dr. Strangelove, which I went to see the opening performance of hoping Stanley would be there so I could invite him to my wedding,("Stop being a writer," Don said, just before we heard the 'click-click-click' of the bus counter that was Stanley counting the house: "We just broke the house record for the Criterion," he said, and came to the wedding.)
       Don at the time was producing the first televised Jets games for WOR, and Stanley took him aside and told him to keep the camera on the line, not follow the ball.  "The line is where the most interesting action in the game happens," Stanley said.
    "Stanley," said Don.  "If you'll let me run a credit at the end saying 'Directed by Stanley Kubrick,' I'll keep the camera anywhere you say."
    Not too many years after that, two little children in tow, we moved to London, where everything was "happening" at the time. We went to a grand Sunday lunch at the country home of Max and Gary Smith-- Max was a close friend and Don was working for Gary on a TV show at the time-- where Stanley was living next door.  So I took the two little very adorable children through the hedge, as in the fantasy parable by E.M.Forster("The Other Side of the Hedge," check it out, you'd never have anticipated it from him) and rang the doorbell of the great house, which it was.
   The bell chimed, loudly, melodramatically, a style you wouldn't have really anticipated from Stanley, at least the way he had been. The door creaked open-- no kidding-- that eerie painful sound you always thought was overdone in horror movies.  Two great, lean, shiny Dobermans, snarled and leapt into the air in front of us, snapping at the air, barely constrained by their chains.
    "Stanley?" I said, into the shadowed darkness.  
    He recognized my voice. "Gwen?"
     "Yes," I said.
     "I'd ask you in," he said, "but the dogs would go for the children."
    That was the last I saw or almost saw of him.  I got a long letter of apology from him, partially typed, with an extra, pained PS across the top of it in his very small, tortured hand.  And like a fool I let anger and hurt get the best of me, and threw it away, instead of saving it and selling it for a fortune at auction, to some Kubrick-phile.  Maybe even the director of Gravity.
     It's hard to tell from my slightly snow-draped little balcony that overlooks the rear of my building, and faces the back of several more, including the overbuilt monstrosity from which the crane fell last year, how bad the streets might be.  But I am confident that everything that was promised by the new mayor will be delivered.  And if not, a thaw will likely come, and slush.  And at that point, maybe I'll make my way to the movies.  

Wednesday, January 01, 2014


So in my youth, which I of course didn't realize was my youth, I had the joy of musicalizing my D.C. days while I was spying on the Republicans, which I was doing for my next novel, and what I hoped would be my growing connection with my American roots and sensibilities.   I had a great friendship, in between political adventures, with Bill and Taffy Danoff, a gifted duo, then married, in whose home I had the joy of singing with and listening to Harry Nillson, Tommy Smothers, and Bill and Taffy themselves, not yet accessorized by John and Margo, who, together with them would become The Starland Vocal Band.  They were gifted and darling and unfortunately managed by the most over-rated and self-involved entrepreneur in the business, who quickly sold them down the river and then abandoned them, after their huge success with AFTERNOON DELIGHT, a hit so big it branded them a one-hit-wonder, though the quality of their other songs was often greater.   I was in the audience when they were celebrated at the Grammys, and was so excited I left my headlights on in the parking lot, and had to be towed.
    It never occurred to me that that kind of career had limitations.  Talent was talent.  They were lovely human beings besides their gifts, their home a sanctuary for me.  So as their fame began to slip away, and Country Roads, which Billy had really written-- I think John Denver's contribution had been "Almost Heaven, West Virginia"-- or maybe that was Taffy's-- became their most noted song even though it was usually attributed to John.  Then John's plane fell in the ocean and mostly it became a remembrance, and a more-or-less annual tribute on the part of hardcore(as if there could have been a hardcore to Denver)fans, as their popularity and marriage slipped away.  I took it very personally, as I had a tendency to take everything, because I regarded them as My Music Group, and knew not only how gifted, but how bright and funny they were. Billy had actually been a student of Chinese, the language, so that should give you some idea of the eclectic nature of his intelligence.
     As the years went by, I loved them no less just because the world did.  Even as their marriage ended, and Bill and Taffy split and Bill married Joanie and they had Owen, I regarded them as my personal gifted musicians from D.C.  So it is with the greatest of pleasure that I report the emergence of Bill and Joanie's son Owen Danoff, who made his NY nightclub, it sort of was, debut at a place on Bleecker Street Monday night.  He's good, extremely musical, and touching.
    I am always surprised and a little saddened when people stop doing something at which they were gifted.  Gifts, I believe, are really that, something that the fairies or the gods drop on us for reasons we will probably never know and may actually be none of our business.  But we have a duty to them, to fulfill them and exercise them as long as we are able, or often past that time.  It is the effort that becomes our obligation.  So even if we fail, we are admirable because we have kept trying.
    I saw Tommy Smothers on an off-the-beaten-track station the other night, and was saddened by how out-of-synch he seemed, a very young man in an old man's body.  Still Tommy Smothers, though.  I hope he is having a good time, considering what a good time he gave to so many of us, though not always in the circumstances we might have wished.  But that is another story.  A pretty funny one.