Saturday, May 28, 2016


So I have lived a lot of years past Lolita, and she, it, and the vast magnificence that is the U.S. of A. have made the front of The New York Times Sunday Travel section,  just as I have come to the time in my life when I am trying to sort out all the experiences, great and abusive, that have gone into making the today Me.  Prime among them, if my mind is open and my heart is full, is Lolita itself.
   'Twas at a party I went to one Hollywood weekend when I came down from Stanford where I was doing graduate work, that I met Stanley Kubrick, the by now mythic director though probably forgotten by most or at least you need to be reminded.  He was deeply dark-eyed and with his blossoming wife Christiane.  I said to the just-met Stanley that she was the most beautiful pregnant woman I had ever seen.  He said "What did you think I would marry?" as though we had been friends forever, as it now seemed we would be.  He had just been announced as having the movie rights for LOLITA, the greatest literary sensation in eons.
     To my joy and protracted adolescent delight-- I think I was twenty-five, but I had gone back to graduate school to study with Wallace Stegner, whom I admired, not knowing him, a state that was to continue even though they took my enrollment money not bothering to tell me he wouldn't be there to teach that year-- Kubrick came up from Hollywood to visit me, taking me on a boat ride around that perilous San Francisco bay.  "I'm in terrible trouble," he said.  "I've hired Nabokov to do the screenplay of Lolita, and he can't write dialogue.  You're the best writer of dialogue in America..."  I had given him the manuscript to read of the novel I'd submitted as my Master's Thesis for my graduate degree.  So cosseted and complimented, I agreed, joyfully, to come down to Hollywood and be in the closet, as the expression still went then about things beside sex, writing the screenplay.
   Paranoia was one of Stanley's leading characteristics, so I was allowed to tell no one I was even in town, holed up in an apartment motel on Sunset Boulevard, all my dinners taken with Stanley and Christiane, not that bad because I loved them, and Christiane was a good cook.  But as I click-clacked away on my little portable typewriter-- I began to grow somewhat uneasy.  Stanley spoke with luminous eyes of a scene where Humbert was, in his vision, to talk excitedly, though belittlingly,  of a ten-year-old who had polio.  I said to him, "Stanley, you can't have him putting down a little girl with polio."  And he said, "No, you don't get it.  He's thinking he's never fucked a ten year old with polio before."
    "Stanley..." I said.  "How do you see this movie?"
    "It's a love story," he said.
    "Oh," I said.  "I thought it was a comedy."  Right after that, I realized I shouldn't be writing it, stepped away, and lost touch.
     Still, I loved him and Christiane, and when Don and I were going to get married I wanted to ask them to the wedding.  So I said to Don we should go to the opening day of Dr. Strangelove, that Stanley would be there, counting the house.  "Stop being a writer," Don said.
     But coming down from from the balcony after the 4 o'clock screening, I heard 'Click, click, click, click, click,' And there stood Stanley, counting.  "We just broke the house record for the Criterion," he said.
    So we picked up the friendship, and they came to the wedding at the Plaza.  Christiane brought us a glass vase from Tiffany's.  German, she was shocked at the price, which she informed me, while giving it to me, was $29.95. (To let you know how long ago it was the same vase is now $400.)
     Don at the time was working in television at WOR TV, producing the first Jets games.  Stanley watched in a corner of the reception.  "You should keep the camera on the line," Stanley told Don.  "Don't follow the ball.  The line is where the real action is."
    "Stanley," said Don.  "You let me run a credit at the end, 'Directed by Stanley Kubrick,' I'll keep the camera anywhere you say."
     We lost touch soon after that and the Kubricks went back to Europe.  A few years after that, we were living in England, with our by then little children.  Visiting the Gary Smiths, who were friends, I knew that the Kubrick's home was behind theirs.  So I took my tiny progeny, Madeleine 4 and Robert 2, to the stone castle next door.
   I rang the bell.  It tolled, big time.  Slowly the doors creaked open.  There was the sound of dogs, and two giant creatures snarled, pulled at leashes.
     "Stanley?" I said, into the darkness.  "Stanley?"
     He recognized my voice.  "Gwen?" he said.  "I'd ask you in, but the dogs will go for the children."
       I have written that tale (tail?) before, but it is now so long ago that I hope it is synthesized,  that my style has smoothed.  In any case, I am finally trying to pull all my adventures together while my hands and my mind still work.  I remember the night I was watching the Academy Awards and that little Italian, I think he was, who won, sorrowed over the loss of Stanley, who had, unbeknownst to me, just died.  I was sad of course, though in my view, his movies had become painfully slow.  But perhaps that was just the one with Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise.  
       Still I understand at very long last, how lucky I was to have known the people I did.  And though it has become a world of Trumps and Tweets, maybe there are still some who like words. And memories.

Friday, May 13, 2016

THE BIRDS- not the Hitchcock version

So as close friends know, and some who are not so close, I have been, as are many in the world, in a struggle in my late age with some who are still in a fairly early one.  To center my soul, and, hopefully, my concentration, I had been sent the unexpected gift from the universe, of a mother Morning Dove, who made herself at home, or, more accurately, at nest, in what had been a flower arrangement on top of the air-conditioner outside my window. I watched first one egg be laid, then a second, saw her sitting on them, then was present, talking to a friend on the phone as the eggs hatched.  Since then I have been, from time to time, hypnotized by the very slow progression of baby birds into bird-Being, as they chewed at the underbelly of their mom, came out, looked around, and slowly grew.
      Then yesterday, when I came back from a less-than-enriching walk, my spirits being not quite as substantially lifted as one might wish and expect from a big birthday, I saw that my two little birdies, one of them named Fiona, (am not sure yet about the second,) were completely exposed, their little feathered backs not quite heaving, but moving up and down in clear indication that they were still alive, though vulnerable.
     The same just before midnight, at least as well as I could see, and again a little after five-thirty in the morning when I got up to check again.  I couldn't go back to real sleep after that, as concerned as I was.  After all, it had been a while since I'd had a pet, and Carleen and had come to the airy conclusion that "anyone could have a dog."
     Now it was seven, the air was clear, and there was still no sign of Mom.  Today is Acacia's birthday, so I called to sing her a birthday song badly sung, and also to share my concern and worry about the borderline disappearance at the flight of my mother bird.
"She'll be back," said Acacia, being a Texas girl, where they still have small towns and country.  "She had to go look for food."
      But of course I had gone to Bryn Mawr, so thought I knew better.  So I moved the wire-flowerpot-thing to the ground on the other side of the not-quite-fire-escape that overhangs the citified abyss, so when Sasha came to put in the air-conditioner, which he would have to do anytime now, because this is New York where the weather is irrational and we can't wait for real summer, he'd be able to do it without disturbing the birds, in the unlikely event their mother should return and they should live.  No sooner had I done that, of course, it now being about seven-thirty A.M., than she came back, standing on the rail of the not-exactly-safe-place-to-go, strutting back and forth looking for them.  I told her they were on the other side, opened the door to her, and short of shouting, struggled to make her see where they were, on the other side of the metal-I-guess-you-could-call-it-Balcony.  But I guess she does not speak English or frantic gestures.  So she flew away.
     What to do?  Is there Bird-Pray?  Desperate, almost, and of course more than sad, for I had not understood Nature or listened to Acacia.  So hoping for redemption-- after all, it was my birthday, and today is Acacia's, I moved the improvised flower-pot-holder-transmuted-into-nest back where it had been before, and butted out.
The baby birds were backwards: that is to say they were on the right side of the flowerpot holder where before they'd been on the left, but hopefully that wouldn't be too much of a non-stretch for Mom.
     And sure enough, thank God, or thank Bird, within the half hour she was back, and they were feeding from her mouth or her throat or her belly, wherever they could find anything.  So it is a tragic tale nipped in the bird.  The whole little gang is at rest now, Mom on top of them, parts of them sticking out now that they've grown.  I can only hope, pray, sing, visualize, whatever, that they will be grown and flown by the time I have to have air-conditioning or die, as one could in New York.  
    Or else maybe I can fly someplace else.  Any suggestions? 

Tuesday, May 10, 2016


So said my step-father, Saul Schwamm, affectionately or sneeringly known as 'Puggy,' because of the wonder of his lower jaw, protruding into the conversation.  Asserting itself, as he usually did in business but rarely, after time went by with my mother, with whom he had been crazily in love in the beginning, but gradually, I would imagine, came to dislike, despise, and ultimately fear.  As I remember, and memory is something that is still working on more than a few occasions, she came to wake him for work, bringing him a glass of juice or coffee, while telling him she didn't know why he bothered to get out of bed in the morning, he was such a loser.  Kindness was not her best suit, though Elizabeth Taylor wanted to play her, so it must have been an impressive role.
   But when I wanted to quit Bryn Mawr, because Freddie Sadoff, at that moment a force at the Actor's Studio, wanted me to write a play, or I had already written one, probably in a few hours, that he wanted to put on, and my mother locked me in my room at their apartment, shrieking: "They told me this would happen at the Beauty Parlor!" Puggy came in.  "It's okay," I said. "I wanted to quit because I had no reason to stay.  Now I have a reason.  You won't let me quit." "No, Gwenny," he said. "There's your reason." He pointed to the painting on the wall above my bed.  "All art will show itself in its time.  Don't rush the calendar."
     Well, I certainly haven't.   Tomorrow is my birthday, and I won't tell you how old I am because I don't want you to get scared.  I certainly did, until I went back to Bryn Mawr yesterday and saw that I could still think.  And even better, feel.
    Then today I heard from the social worker on the case of poor Jessica, my mother's child with Puggy, my mad half-sister.  So sad, from the era when the over-valued and in-the-long-run insidious Reagan had the mentally ill turned out of hospitals.  Jessica had had her nose fixed again, "back the way it was," she'd said, an implant put in to make it look Jewish. Not long after she'd ripped it off, saying "Jesus didn't like it and Mary didn't like it."  Some years later, she'd crashed my mother's funeral, in morbid not-quite-in-imitation of my mother's crashing parties, as the family was afraid and hadn't invited her.  Since then she has been holed up in a house in the desert and they just went in and found fifteen cats, some of them dead, and took Jessica to the hospital.  
    This is stuff I can't make up, but had, not having actually experienced it, made into a comedy.  That's the one Elizabeth wanted to play.
    So very sad.  Especially now that Elizabeth, as well as my mother, is dead.
    But I am especially remembering the painting on the wall.  It was a Jackson Pollock.  8 by 12, The Blue Unconscious.  Clement Greenberg, the art critic who discovered Pollock was Puggy's good friend, and he'd urged Puggy to buy it because he was the only one with money, and Pollock didn't have money to eat.  So Puggy had bought it.  My mother had turned it on its side, saying "What difference does it make?"
      I don't think you can say the same about human lives.  Or the country.

Monday, May 09, 2016

The Gift of Life

So if anyone doubts that Life is a present, along with learning, they should visit Bryn Mawr on a Spring day.  The secret of the other meaning of "present" is what I learned from Jack-- to be where you are, your awareness fully focussed on exactly what you are going through, and being there completely.  Of course it helps when the day is a perfect one, the only clouds in the sky like a detail in a Van Gogh painting, to accentuate the beauty.  I have long had the conviction that we are held in invisible hands, and if our hearts and our minds are open, the hands will be, too.
     In the background and foreground there, of course, was the Gothic architecture, formidable, great arches, actual turrets, all the aspects that seemed as forbidding as they might have when seen for the first time, but ultimately majestic as the whole opportunity of education was and is.  Softened by the view of newly blossoming trees, at their base, dedications to students past and gone calling up remembrances.  I realize I sound elated, but elated is what I was by all I was seeing and feeling, and the gift of a perfect day.  As friends know, I have a tendency to take things personally, so just as I feel wounded when I would be better off letting go, I am lifted by what might not seem so glorious to others.  But I don't think that would be the case of my visit to Bryn Mawr.
      Everything in blossom, including the students, revving up for graduation, lining up to receive their caps and gowns, only one visibly unhappy one, her father, an educator from another place, waiting for her return from a professorial appointment, reading Hamilton.  So many languages, so many shapes of eyes.  And even as the Sunday papers headlined discouraging news, the reality of all those bright young minds heading semi-fearlessly out into the world signaled encouraging one.  And it's helped by the campus.
     We were all so lucky.  Even those who might not have thought so.  The one who went off the tower at Rock because of love unreturned.
      The day unfolded, like the gift cards in the basement at the student store, sun gilding the stone. I had a great meeting with the new president, Kim Cassidy, as tall as her spirit, and gave her two of my better books, The Motherland and Marriage, the last unfortunately marred by a couple of uncorrected typos Don Fine had been unable to change by the time of release, prompting him to threaten the printer with throwing him out the window.  What a colorful career I have had, everything seeming so grave at the time, all of it now fairly funny, or at least colorful.  It is my hope, of course, to do something before my exit, that gives a financial lift to a theatrical arm of Bryn Mawr, now apparently severed.  I can't imagine my having done anything I did without the boon of theatre and original musical that Bryn Mawr encouraged and promoted, Miss McBride having said to my mother after Junior Show, -- I'd written most of the songs and had the comedy lead, "This is the most exciting theatrical event since Katharine Hepburn was a student here."  Of course there was my mother's gazing after her, asking "Who was that?" and my saying, "The president of the college." And my mother's saying "Oh, I thought it was the washerwoman."  Never underestimate the power of cruelty in inspiring comedy.   
     I called Miss McBride from a pool party in Hollywood some years later to try and help my step-brother, Mickey, Puggy's son, get into Harvard, and as Tab Hunter splashed into the water, Miss McBride said "Well, Gwen, of all the places you might have ended up, I should have known it would be Hollywood."  I really loved her.  I don't think a lot of people knew how funny she was.
      Lunch was at the Deanery, with Wendy Greenfield, the wonderful executive director of the Alumnae Association, a loving and giving human being, which one doesn't always (or even often) expect in someone so organized.  I have always been so lucky in the friendships I managed to established, even in dining rooms.  Then I walked the campus, hung out till parting time, when the colorful driver of the taxi, friend to the college and very much in charge of the wheel took me back to the station, where I bought myself flowers to commemorate the day.
     With people standing in line waiting for the train to start boarding, I tapped into a youngish blond man and asked him to hold my place, sitting down on a bench like the older woman I now understand I am. When the train boarded, I told a woman trying to take the seat beside me that the place was saved, and when the young man passed I invited him to sit down.  And who he was, as I could not have invented, was an art dealer from Berlin, smart as a (what is the German word for whip?) and funny.  So I have a friend now in Germany with an art business, as well as some of the most interesting friendships in the galleries.  Is there room in my mind for a new subject?  Was there a reason I slept under Jackson Pollock?  Is it late for a beginning? We shall see, unless we don't.