Tuesday, August 25, 2015


There was a review in yesterday’s, or maybe it was Saturday’s NYTimes of a Sue Mengers biography,  by someone looking to remember or profit from her.  Sue was my best friend, a curious word to apply to her as it turned out, when we were both starting out as young women—baby girls we might have considered ourselves at the time, when everything was cute, and dialogue was witty, and both of us were dating… no, really… Billy Rose.
      He was just as short as fabled, and probably even richer than the stories went, and had a limo that he picked you up in that then parked outside the 6th Avenue Delicatessen, where he actually took you to dinner.  He was cruder—is that a word?—than the legends had it, but balanced off the low level of his diction with the mythic  height of his friends, so old, of course, that you needed to look them up on what would have been the era’s Internet, if something like that existed, which it probably didn’t.  You would have had to call Gore Vidal who likely knew all that shit. 
     Billy took me to a few adventures in his limo—the black tie premiere of Lord Jim—a visit to his Fifth Avenue mansion, where there was in the front hall a statue that I confuse with Moses or something by Rodin, or maybe it really was The Thinker, borrowed or maybe stolen for a brief period of time from the museum in Paris.  Standing in front of that statue on Billy’s Fifth Avenue marble staircase, I was borderline ga-ga, there on the landing with tiny, old Billy behind me, and he actually said: “I know what you’re thinking: you’d like to ball him, right?”
      That was a line I used in The Pretenders, my bestseller—the only one I had since I never had that clever a publisher or such good timing again—the name of which inspired the singing group, a happy fact I didn’t learn until a number of years later when their lead singer told me they named themselves after my novel.  Meanwhile, Sue, truly my best friend, something she could still afford to be at the time, being my agent and Tom Korman’s partner, had stolen Phyllis Rabb’s client list from William Morris, and begun reaching out to all of them—clawing more likely.  There was no one cleverer, or, little round person that she was, cuter, in her lovely-skinned, chubby way.  When my novel came out and became a bestseller we had one moment where she might have expressed her feeling of betrayal—I’m not sure.  But I am sure she never expected me to be a success, so the fact that the novel lifted me to some kind of temporary prominence, though it never matched hers, irritated her.
     She didn’t speak to me for a big number of her superstar years, until a later novel, SILK LADY, revived and updated her character, though I’d had no contact with her for years.  It was, she phoned me to say, eerily on target about how she spoke and felt about everything. For a moment we were as close during that conversation as we’d been in our sort-of-girlhoods.
       It was shortly after Don died, -- he had really loved her in our early days, when we all hung out together.  She ended the conversation with “Most of all, I remember how much he loved you,” and hung up.  I tried to get her back, as I was to do over and over again in the coming years, but she never re-opened the door.  Control was her big issue.
      I saw her once after that, at Gladyce Begelman’s memorial, when she expressed her anger at my having told Liz Smith, lovingly as I remember, of that last phone conversation.  Then I saw her the last time, outside Phil Scully’s restaurant, when she tried to run me down in her Mercedes.  So you could say the friendship ended badly.  But I think, all in all, I probably held her in higher regard than she held herself.
     That she is still being talked of, or, at least, written about, albeit not very well, according to the review, is some indication of the energy she had, the force she was.  The play about her that I saw was not as sharp as she was.  There’s a production of it now off Broadway.  So I guess, in her own way, for a while at least, she has become immortal.
         What’s interesting to me, as me, for me, is that I still miss her. But then I never knew the tough nut she became.  I knew only the sharp young woman she was.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015


Today is the birthday of my stepfather, Saul Schwamm, affectionately known as 'Puggy', for the underthrust of his jaw, and, I wouldn't be surprised, his attitude.  Ready, more often than not, for an argument, he was also surprisingly kind and insightful, and, probably, a romantic.  My novel, The Motherland, ostensibly about my mother, the captious, facetious, and spectacularly original Helen Finkelstein Davis Schwamm, was, more pointedly about him, an incredibly touching and sensitive man who was forced by reality to abandon what deep yearnings he had for greatness as it manifested in his time slot, and become a stock broker, a trader on Wall Street, half of a duo consisting of him and his older brother Harvey.
    The day Roosevelt closed the banks, they took an ad in the Wall Street Journal saying-- approximately, I think: "Business will be conducted as usual in the offices of Schwamm and Co."  So everyone in the world who wanted to trade that day had to do it through their company . So they made eleven million dollars in one day.  Today that would probably be many multiples of that.
    Naturally they were despised, and considered and called Jews.
    Puggy was an extremely sensitive man, a secret dreamer, probably a poet had he had a pen late at night in bed, when it turned out his wife was less or other than she seemed.  The first one was sickly, an invalid, mother of his brilliant but troubled and clumsy son, Mickey,-- the second was, my mother, the zappy, charming, clever, secretly bitchy and destructive and probably crazy Helen, the third was Kathy, maybe with a C, the Gentile heiress who had been engaged to his son, probably the reason for Mickey's  attempted suicide, and later an alcoholic. How much later I do not know for sure, as it was my creative task and pleasure to pull this all together for what was my really good novel THE MOTHERLAND which Michael Korda, an excellent editor except when it came to supporting my book said was "the only book we are publishing this Spring," though he forgot about a little thing called "ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN."  
     So Fiction hit up against reality, and the near collapse of the United States, and as I said, wittily I was sure, God had to choose between saving our country and my novel.  It was a heartbreak I could hardly feel at the time I was so busy being political, having been adopted by many prominent Republicans in Washington at the time-- I was staying in the home of Gerald Warren, the Deputy Press Secretary under Nixon, my best friend being Muggy Hoffmann, wife of Martin Hoffmann, underSecretary of the Army, and best friend himself of Donald Rumsfeld, too clever to seem the villain he turned out to be.  Somehow I was in all the front rows of the trials taking place at the time, and had I been smart enough to parlay it all into Huffingtonian shit, I probably would have become a political figure myself.  Instead, I just really loved my country, and worried about what would happen to it.
     Truly I hadn't a clue.
     That I am still alive to be able to grieve for my favorite, Benjamin Franklin, at what has become of the country he was so clever as to imagine could lift the rest of the world into intelligence, is, I suppose, its own kind of miracle.  In any and all cases, I am more or less happy for Puggy that he is not here on his birthday to see that things became even worse than he could have anticipated.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Children of the Greats

THERE NEVER WAS A SMARTER PERSON at Bryn Mawr than Joanna Semel now Rose, and that is really saying Something.  Even the most stupid woman, girl, whatever we were, someone who couldn't have gotten in in the first place, was smarter than almost anyone on the outside, and smartest of them was Joanna.  So the publication of her daughter Emily's book, THE MURDER OF WILLIAM OF NORWICH should be a cause of celebration among people who think, a less than universal category.  Rush to your local bookstore if one exists, and try to keep it and thinking in business.

Sunday, August 02, 2015


So the young and still very beautiful Marlon Brando is on the front of the theatre section of the New York Times today, holding his baby Christian.  Taking all things personally, which I do, I gently seize this as a sign that my life, too, may re-begin.
     It was all these many years ago, when as a Junior at Bryn Mawr, and an aspiring songwriter,  I met a woman named Janice Mars, who wanted to sing a song of mine called 'SEX.'  Everybody wanted to sing it, (it was clever and funny, road company-young- girl-Cole Porter) and Janice invited me to come into New York to meet 'Somebody.'  We rendezvoused  at the Carnegie Hall apartments, getting off the elevator at a high floor, to the resonating cry of 'Eeeeeh, Janice!" in that unmistakeable voice.  There was at the time no greater star in the world than Marlon Brando, and, I really believe, in spite of all the damage he did to himself in the following years, there never would be a greater star.  Not with the impact he had, the way he was then, when I had the teenager-y ecstasy of hanging out with him as he did his later-that-summer- summer stock "Arms and the Man," in Falmouth Massachussetts, so all his friends could work, including Janice.
     "Sing it to me, kid," he said that day at the Carnegie Towers, as he whopped Janice back down across his lap, and picked imaginary(I think they were) hairs from her chest, and beat on it the rhythm of the song I was singing.
     "Not bad, not bad," he said, when I was finished, still shaking. "Tell me about yourself, kid."  So I did, voice quavering, ending with "And I go to Bryn Mawr."
    "Oooooooo, Ba-rynnnnn Mahwahrrrrrrr," he Katharine Hepburned, perfectly.
    So apparently meeting with his approval,  I was invited up to the Falmouth Playhouse, where I got to room with Maureen Stapleton, another good friend of theirs.  She was there doing "Three Men on a Horse" with Wally Cox, Marlon's best buddy. 
    It was, as you might imagine, an enchanted time, in spite of my being unhappily overweight, ("You on a diet, kid?" Marlon said to me at dining hall breakfast, as I set aside three blueberries.  "It's okay, I just think most girls are prettier thin."  Considering what was to happen to him, it seems beyond ironic.  I last saw him at a wedding at the Hotel Bel-Air, where he was so huge as to be unrecognizable, except for the "V" at the base of the back of his hair. )
    "There's your great love," my husband, always solicitous and always jealous of my infatuations said as we saw him sitting on a bench in the garden.  "He's turned into Sydney Greenstreet."  
    And so he had.
    So it was great, seeing Marlon yesterday, digitalized on the screen in the film they've made from his own obsessive collecting of his own career record, remembering how brilliant he was, sorrowing that his life brought him so little happiness, so few moments of real laughter, the comedy he was so inept at playing, but so enjoyed. 
     Then I took a break for some Japanese food, and went back to see another of my attachments, Gore Vidal, in his miffed debates with William F. Buckley.  I never much liked Buckley, but never felt compassion for him like I did yesterday.
    We had been in Rome, my husband Don and I, when the feared, ferocious, and very funny when she wasn't being mean agent Sue Mengers, still my great friend at the time, told me to call Gore.  He was at the time as big a name as there was in the literary and theatrical world, and I was more than thrilled when he invited us to come for a drink, to his rooftop(I believe it was) overlooking everything, except other people's failings.
     Apparently we passed the cocktail audition.  We were asked to continue on to dinner, in some good (everything is) Italian restaurant, along with one of Andy Warhol's flower-named pseudo-celebs, or maybe it was a sort-of color: Ultra-Violet.
      "Are you wearing contact lenses?" Gore asked me during dinner.
      "No," I said.
      "It's just that your eyes are so beautiful I thought you must have something in them."
       Dazzled is too mild a word for what I felt.  To be hit on by one of the world's most celebrated and certainly most articulate  homosexuals!  I could hardly speak for the rest of the evening.  
    Don was infuriated.  "It just shows what a pervert you are," he said when we got back to our hotel, "that you enjoy the company of Gore Vidal."
      Well, I did. And he, apparently, liked mine.  When Don died-- much too soon-- Gore invited me to come visit him in Ravello.  He waited for me like an eager schoolboy at the trellised entryway to the path along the cliff to the home he shared with his longtime companion Howard Austen, who was not very happy I'd come.  "Gore didn't tell me you were coming," Howard miffed, as I joined them for dinner, after a swim in their pool.  They had everything, or so it seemed,
     The dinner was less than joyful. For the rest of my time there, Gore met me at restaurants in town, so Howard wouldn't be angry.
     Gore e was at the time trying to stop drinking.  When I saw the debates last night I fully understood the level of his malice.  Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, the best of our poets said.  But he was wrong.  Hell hath no fury like a brilliant gay man, nettled. 
    For all his brilliance, Gore wasn't in the least bit funny.  And he was mean.
     I felt actual pity for Buckley.
     Then I came home, as I am trying to think of it, and maybe even make it be a little bit, and tried to catch up with my rest,  Also what might be inside my skull, besides memory. And Desire?  Maybe a bit late in my game, unless it is for Marlon, before he morphed into a Grotesque, digitalized.