‘DODO’ DAY, ‘YIP’ HARBURG, TERRY MELCHER, & JERRY ROSENTHAL
When I was just out of college, my parents sent me to Europe, as parents in that era with a bit of cash and hopes for their progeny did. I ended up singing the songs I wrotein a nightclub in Paris, on the Right Bank even though it was a Left Bank activity.
My mother came to whisk me away from the “wicked life” she was convinced I was living in Paris. Leo Jaffe, the treasurer of Columbia Pictures, friendly with my parents, with a crush on my mother, sent a detective to check out my Paris activities. He reported back I was performing for and probably sleeping with schwartzes, Yiddish for ‘blacks,’ mainly those populating the night life of Paris. When I was hospitalized briefly for what seemed to be appendicitis-- but turned out to be an allergy to Beaujolais-- my mother was convinced I had had an abortion. This was particularly ironic, since the self-administered title ‘The Last Innocent in Paris’ label was, in spite of my efforts to be otherwise, adhering all too well. I was twenty, longing to be undone. One night as I strolled in the moonlight by the river Seine I offered myself to the man I adored, Gene Moskowitz, the Paris Variety critic. His response was simple. “Gwen, I could never violate you: you’re the last pure thing in Show Business.”
So virginal still, and embarrassed about it, I went to meet Mama at the Cannes Film Festival, where Leo had gotten us V.I.P.ed. (I must here put in an aside: my mother, darkly petite and beautiful, was, for the whole of her life, a magnet to men. Leo carried an ever-illuminated torch for her, and was furious when, when he introduced her to Jack Valenti, the longtime president of the Motion Picture Association, and Jack succeeded in taking her to bed in Rome. She told me it was the first time in her life she had an orgasm without foreplay. So much for that stiff little man who appeared so colorless at the Academy Awards, as he always had.)
It was the year Grace Kelly was Hollywood’s princess, before becoming Monaco’s. She’d spent long and languid hours on the beach with Jean-Pierre Aumont, smooching in full view of those on the tiny, uncomfortable pebbles they consider sand in that part of the world. Observers included me. Shortly after that season Aristotle Onassis, who held markers on the Casino at Monte Carlo, and indeed, many claimed, owned the whole principality of Monaco, reportedly negotiated her engagement to Prince Rainier, thus assuring the advent of profitable tourism.
But lovely as Grace Kelly was, and amazing as the very public lovemaking seemed on the part of such a legendarily well-bred woman, from the Main Line, yet, I was less interested in her than the blonde next door. Doris Day was the #1 Box Office attraction in movies, possessed of a rich, smiling voice with a tear in it, and I was a starting-gate songwriter, not to mention an incipient groupie. So I talked to her and we became friends, Doris, her husband Marty Melcher, and her son Terry, whom Marty had adopted and given his name.
They were in Europe at the time because Doris was on her way to Morocco to make ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ with James Stewart, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. They were to stop in London, where I would also be. She told me how I could reach her. I couldn’t wait to. I was given the privilege of baby-sitting her son, Terry, who was then an ornery, freckle-faced twelve.
“Buckingham Palace, who needs it?!” Terry complained as I took him on a tour of the city. “The Tower of London, who needs it?! Let’s go to Wimpy’s and have a Wimpyburger.” So that’s what we did. (They were not very good, but they were burgers.) I was later to write a song called ‘Who Needs It?’ and present it to Marty, a powerful song publisher, due in no small part to his wife’s importance, when I met them again in Los Angeles. But meanwhile I endured the obnoxious plaints of little Terry, because I had an agenda.
Besides being a songwriter, I did love Doris. How could you not? She was as sweet as she was apple-pie pretty, and seemingly guileless. She was uncomfortable around Jimmy Stewart: he was as shy as she was. While Doris, Stewart and his new wife, Gloria, shopped for cashmere sweaters, I came along and was allowed to watch. Among Doris’ other enviable traits was the perfect figure for sweater sets, which she bought in a variety of colors, as many as she wanted, the only evidence of her super-stardom, one I considered hardly extravagant. I could see with my yearning eyes, peering out of my very chubby face, where it paid to be a movie star, especially with the body she had.
Che sera sera, as she’d sung in the song. When I arrived in Hollywood a while later, I called her, and she invited me to come meet her at her attorney’s house, where they were going to play tennis on Sunday. Her attorney was Jerome B. Rosenthal, Marty’s partner in a company Jerry had created to catch every drop of money from Doris’ films and records. Jerry was a genius—an evil genius many were to say—the first lawyer to incorporate movie stars, so they could own the profits from their pictures, swinging better deals with the studios they made movies for, for example, Universal. Kirk Douglas was a client. Supposedly to this day, With Douglas one hundred years old, the mere mention of Jerry’s name calls up wrath in that actor’s eyes. Another he represented, Ross Hunter, the most successful producer of the over-lush movies of his era, would be known to weep if anyone spoke of Jerry, who Ross said had wiped him out. Jerry handled just about everyone of major importance in the industry. And, as it later came to light when Doris sued him after Marty’s death, charging the two of them had colluded to cheat her out of what should have been a fortune, apparently screwed them all.
But he was kind to me. He liked my songs and incorporated me and made me my own publishing company at no cost, never taking any share of my royalties, probably because there weren’t many. At one point when I visited Jerry’s office he had a papier-mache layout of an entire region he was planning to incorporate and make into a kind of country in South America. I think it was in Ecuador. Years later, when Mel Brooks and Buck Henry did ‘Get Smart’ on television, there was a character called ‘Mr. Big,’ played by Michael Donne, a dwarf, and Maxwell Smart lamented “If only he had turned his badness to goodness, he might have really been MR. BIG.” That was the way I ultimately came to feel about Jerry, who could have run and owned Hollywood without having to start his own country, had he only learned to enjoy being straightforward.
Still, that day on the tennis court at his home, he seemed and was as affable a man as I had ever encountered. Gracious and funny, with a sour-faced wife whose bags were already probably packed against the day she would leave him, he went out of his way to be welcoming to me, introducing me to the great lyricist who was to become my mentor, E.Y. Harburg. Better known as ‘Yip,’ Harburg was the gentle, genial wordsmith who gave us the lyrics of some of the world’s greatest songs, from the score of ‘Wizard of Oz’ to ‘Finian’s Rainbow,’ and had made the Depression woefully easier to bear with ‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime.’
I was the only one at courtside that Sunday without credits, much less fame or a portfolio. So the fact that Jerry seemed to take me into his circle was more than heartwarming. I believe I might have sung a song or five during the lunch they served on the patio, still shamelessly a performer, as I’d been in the Mars Club in Paris, doing my own songs. But I was also looking for some recognition from Marty, who could have published them. And, of course, from Doris.
“That’s Double A Ascap stuff,” Marty declared with a mix of admiration and disinterest, as Bobby Darin had just come out with ‘Splish-splash’ and changed the face and the ears of the music business. Rock and roll had come in; sentimental and witty ballads were out.
But at least I had made some inroads into the songwriting business, rutted though those inroads were. Jerry became my protector, and Yip became my songwriting guru, cheering me on.
As for Doris, I didn’t see her much after that. But several years later, I met Terry again. Marty had been long dead and well in the past was the famous lawsuit Doris brought against Jerry. It had landed him in jail—not because he had cheated her, that was a civil, money penalty, but because he thought he was smarter than anybody, (and really was) but couldn’t keep his mouth shut, so kept arguing with the judge. He was sentenced to two years for contempt.
My friend A. E. Hotchner, who’d written Doris’ bio, after a more famous and exemplary earlier stint as the author of Papa Hemingway, gave a party at a house in Coldwater Canyon, with his friend and partner in the food business, Paul Newman. It was right in the middle of Watergate, and I had been spending considerable time in Washington, researching a novel, staying in the homes of Republicans, trying to find the good guys, even while deploring Nixon and hoping he would be brought down.
“There are no good guys in this bunch,” Paul Newman said, his fabled blue eyes steely.
Terry was present at the party. He wanted to know how much I knew about what Jerry was up to, what the fallen lawyer had told me, what leftover threads there were.
My mother and my stepfather, an investment banker in New York, himself a bit of a scalawag, but always above the law, had become friends with Jerry through me, so I knew a lot more about what had happened to him than Terry did. When Jerry went to jail, the one who would accept his collect calls from prison was my mother. Having served his term, Jerry was now living on the wrong side of the tracks where the streetcars used to run through Beverly Hills. He was gaunt, apparently impoverished, wearing threadbare clothes, this man who had been so dashing, so on top of the world, so smart. I told him I had seen Terry, who wanted to know what Jerry was up to. “Be careful,” Jerry warned me. “It’s become a war of attrition.”
He had told me of Terry’s visits to the Spahn ranch, where Charles Manson welcomed him, as Charley, too, was a would-be songwriter, and thought Terry would help him through Marty’s publishing company. It was Jerry’s contention that Linette ‘Squeeky’ Frome, who’d gone on to make an assassination attempt at President Gerald Ford, had been romantically involved with Terry. It was Jerry’s further assertion that it was actually Terry who was the target of the Manson Family’s murderous rampage, ending with the infamous deaths, including Sharon Tate’s, of those who were living in the house Roman Polanski had rented. From Terry Melcher. Hell hath no fury like a songwriter scorned.
I look at all this now, decades later, and wonder how I could have known all these people without really knowing them, and how it was I could have had access to all the information that I had when nobody else really knew anything. And why it was I did not become an investigative journalist, instead of all the other things I did become—Writer, songwriter, mother, widow, travel writer, and quester. Is there such a category? Is that what I still am now, and what I will be for whatever time is left me?