Saturday, February 20, 2016

ROTHDELL TRAIL

                                                ROTHDELL TRAIL


     The first house I had in Hollywood, where I came when I was twenty, was on Rothdell Trail.   Though it sounds like it belongs in an orthodox Jewish Western, (Tony Perkins, a giant young star of the day, said it was “where Roth first broke through the underbrush,”) it was just off Laurel Canyon, to the south and behind the little grocery store that marked, more or less, the beginning of that perilous(to a New Yorker, who didn’t really drive) twisting road.
     I can’t remember how I came on that atypical locale, but I do remember why I rented it, and stayed.  I was in love with Hollywood, which many of my generation, and several to come, were.  I’d come to that fanciful village when the first (and only) job I ever had, writing for the NBC Comedy Development Program, ended, and I was too humiliated at being fired to stay in New York.  I’d had a colorful beginning to my post-graduate life out of Bryn Mawr, sailing for Paris on the Ile de France, planning to study music, my great love and seeming talent, only to be sidetracked into appearing in a Paris night club singing songs I’d written.  I’d unveiled them in a burst of terror at the Mars Club on the rue Henri Etienne, a cote de la Rue Marbeuf, goaded out of my frightened shyness and into performing by the headliner in the boite that night, the very tall, young Maya Angelou, lead dancer in the State Department touring company of Porgy and Bess.  At the time she told me she was the daughter of a Watusi warrior, and I believed her.  But whoever she was, or whatever her real story, she was forceful and compelling.  So when she barreled through my angst at being alone in Paris, intimidated by the club, with its orange lights and mostly black patrons snapping their fingers and being hip or hep, whichever was correct at the time, and told me I could “get up there and be bigger than anyone,” electrified, I got up and started singing songs that had been a hit at the Bryn Mawr Junior prom.  The boss, a big, fat, dour guy named Ben Benjamin, came over, snapped his fingers at me, and said “Kid, you got a job.”
     I wired my mother: “I am singing in a night club in Paris.”  She wired me back: “Come home immediately.”
      But I didn’t, of course.  I stayed.  I had a wonderful friend I’d met on the Ile de France, Gaby Smith, a writer for Life Magazine, gigantic at the time, who wanted to do a story on me.  But you couldn’t be discovered by Life: there had to be press on you first.  So Art Buchwald, writing columns then for the Herald-Tribune, was supposed to come in to see me.  By the time he made his reservation to come, my salary had been reduced over several months in downward increments, since Ben knew I was waiting for Buchwald, so I was being paid in centimes.   The night he finally made his reservation, he changed his plans at the last minute, and went instead to Yugoslavia, where he wrote about Porgy and Bess’ goat.  Years later I had dinner with him in New York, and he apologized.   
        So much for being discovered.  I had, however, been written about favorably in New Acts in Variety, by Gene Moskowitz, their Paris critic, who, as I remember, liked what I did.  So I of course got a crush on Gene, a very bright man.   Embarrassed at still being a virgin, I offered myself to him.  He said “Gwen, I could never violate you.  You’re the last pure thing in Show Business.”
     Heartsick, and presuming I was never to be discovered on any level, I got on a train and went to Spain, where I lived for a happy, na├»ve while, in a cottage with back gates that led to the sea, in the village of Fuengirola.  There I started writing what I hoped would be my first novel.
    It wasn’t very good.  So I ended up in England translating bad British mysteries into American dialogue for television, before I flew back to New York at the urging of Elliott Kastner, a friend who’d been in the Army in Paris, who became an agent, and was to become a successful producer, to sing my comedy material for Lester Kolodny, head of new talent at NBC.  Les hired me on the spot.  Shortly after, he encamped for Hollywood, leaving me with people who didn’t know who I was and didn’t like Lester.   I was fired, and, mortified, followed him out to L.A.
    So there I was on Rothdell Trail.
   Across from me lived Nick Adams, everybody’s best friend if they were a star: James Dean, recently dead so he couldn’t deny it; Natalie Wood, deeply lonely and insecure, infatuated with Raymond Burr whom she didn’t know was gay.  That was a highly contagious illness among the young women of the time, since it was before most male stars were outed or revealed themselves.  Almost all were, in the parlance of the time, “in the closet.”  Smack in the midst of the innocent and afflicted was me, deeply enamored of the young, very gifted, very handsome, very clever and very secretive Anthony Perkins, being touted at the time as the town’s leading juvenile, often playing the romantic lead, though those parts rarely worked for him.  I had no idea he (or, for that matter, almost anyone) was gay.  And like the romantic I was, I all but plighted my troth, writing songs and poems and plays to win him, and, eventually, my first novel, NAKED IN BABYLON, in which I confronted, most gently and ambivalently, his homosexuality, to set myself free. 
     “All the way to the studio,” Tony said on the phone, “I was thinking ‘I have this fabulous friend, and she writes songs and poems and sends me funny telegrams in French, and now she’s written a novel and she’s going to be the most famous writer in America, and I’m so glad she’s my friend.  And then I read the ending.  (A very pregnant pause.)     “Have you ever been put inside a Waring Blender?” he asked.
    “Tony, I’ll change it.  I’ll throw it away.  Just tell me the truth… let me off the hook.  Is it true?”
     “I care for you as much as I have ever cared for any woman.  We will drink from the same cup.”
     I still didn’t hear what he wasn’t saying.  So I changed it and ruined the novel.  But not the parts that were about the character based on Marlon Brando whom I knew, Dennis Hopper whom I knew well and considered very funny and came over so in the book, Natalie, Monty Clift, whom I imagined I knew, writing about him quite well, I think, and myself, whom, as it turned out, I didn’t really know at all.

       But I was happy to be in the company of those who were, at the time, “Young Hollywood.” Their number included the teen sensation Tab Hunter, the true object of Tony’s affection, to put it mildly.  Decades later, when Tab wrote his memoir, he was to say of me that for a really bright woman, I just didn’t seem to get it.  He and Tony were lovers for all the time that I thought, hoped, believed, prayed that Tony really cared for me.