Sunday, January 6, 2013

41. Rubbing Elbows with the Great and the Famous

         Some people are drawn to celebrities like moths to the proverbial flame.  But I am not a moth; when informed that there is a celebrity in my immediate vicinity, I am inclined to run the other way.  I simply can’t imagine what I could say to them, or what they could say to me.  But if you live in Manhattan long enough, sooner or later you’re bound to encounter a celebrity.  And if not you, then your friends and neighbors.  Here are accounts of such encounters.
         My friend Ken grew up in South Carolina, but from an early age he was reading The New Yorker and acquiring a smattering of New York sophistication before ever setting foot in the city.  Fascinated by Gypsy Rose Lee, who was then at the peak of her career as a stripper, he put together a scrapbook of clippings about her appearances and sent it to her.  Flattered, she wrote back and invited him to look her up, should he ever come to the city.  In time he did; I knew him as another graduate student in French at Columbia University.  Unlike me, Ken adored celebrities and sought them out.  By waiting patiently at a stage door for a glimpse of such luminaries, he was rewarded with a shared taxi ride with Gertrude Lawrence, and a rose from Margot Fonteyn.  A devoted balletomane, he once asked Rudolph Nureyev for an autograph and was answered with a resounding “Nyet!”  Which discouraged him not a bit; he recounted the incident with a dose of humor.
          Ken’s great experience among the famous came when Gypsy Rose Lee invited him to a cocktail party.  Finding myself in Midtown with him, I went with him to her townhouse in the East Sixties and saw him to the door.  He promised to give me an account of the party and did so the following day.

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Gypsy Rose Lee, being her usual modest self.
Library of Congress
         She lived lavishly; on the walls of her residence were paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Miró, and Max Ernst, reportedly given to her by the artists. Among the guests were a showbiz mother and daughter from Hollywood; a representative of Harper, the publisher about to publish her memoir (which would inspire the musical Gypsy); Gypsy’s sister June Havoc; and the one and only Ethel Merman.  Gypsy introduced him with enthusiasm as the young man from the provinces who had sent her a scrapbook of clippings and, nothing loth, he talked to each guest in turn.  The mother and daughter told him of amassing a collection of paintings, explaining, “They’re all back in Hollywood, of course.”  Where else? thought Ken, not too impressed; you wouldn’t tote them around on your travels.  The Harper’s representative was obviously out of his element and glad to talk to Ken, who came with no aura of fame.
         In the middle of the affair Gypsy got a phone call from someone who claimed to be an old friend.  “I have no old friends!” she declared and slammed down the receiver.  “How do these people get my phone number?” she then wondered out loud.  Later, Ken gave me the answer: “Because she gives it to them, that’s how.”  Clearly a formidable presence, a bit intimidating, and very ego-driven.  “They want me in Utica!” she announced with contempt, a theater there having invited her to perform.  That she should get such an offer showed that she was long past the peak of her career and coasting on memories.  “She’ll go,” Gypsy’s secretary told Ken on a later occasion; “she’ll do anything for money.”  And go she did.
         Gypsy’s sister June Havoc was more approachable.  When Ken told her that there were many histories of burlesque with fine illustrations, but none with a literate text, and said he would like to write such a history, she encouraged him warmly, as did Gypsy herself, when apprised of the project.  Alas, it never got done.
         The climax of the occasion was his brief chat with Ethel Merman.  “Miss Merman,” he said, “I’ve seen you many times on stage.  You’re a marvelous success, a great performer at the height of your career.  I don’t know what to say to you.”  Merman then smiled and said quite simply and, I’m sure, sincerely, “You never get tired of hearing it.”  A reminder that if fans need celebrities, celebrities likewise need their fans.

Even in her years at Viking and Doubleday,
she was a remarkably handsome woman.
         Another friend of mine, Ed, was an editor at Viking Press, where in 1975 he made the acquaintance of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who came to work there as an acquisitions editor following the death of her second husband, the shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis.  New to the editing game, to which she brought stellar contacts and a famous name but no editing experience, she came more and more to depend on Ed as a mentor and they became good friends.  At times she invited him to her fifteen-room Fifth Avenue apartment, where they quaffed Dom Perignon champagne.  And whenever she wanted to go to a movie and needed an escort, she would phone Ed and ask if he was willing; he always was.  He described walking down the street with her and seeing heads turn, as people realized who had just passed; one man even exclaimed, “Fabulous!”  In the dark anonymity of the movie house she was offstage at last, no longer a celebrity , just a moviegoer.  She would scrunch down in her seat, munch some goodies, and watch the film like any teenager.  She seemed to need such moments, savored them.  These encounters continued until she left Viking in 1977 for a job at Doubleday.

         Opera singers were also in demand.  My partner Bob’s mother, a veteran opera goer, once quite by chance encountered the famed Yugoslav singer Zinka Milanov in the ladies’ room at the Met, and took advantage of the situation to get her autograph.  Bob himself met Zinka in more formal circumstances, after her retirement, at an autograph session at the Met.  “I’ll never forget your singing,” he said, as she supplied the autograph.  She smiled and said with a touch of accent, “It is good to remember.”  Bob also snagged an interview with Marlene Dietrich in Washington, and Tennessee Williams's autograph on a paper napkin, now framed above his desk, when he heard that the renowned playwright was present in a back room of a gay bar here in the Village.  Why on a paper napkin?  Because it was the only thing handy for an autograph.
Pavarotti the celebrity in full bloom.
But many said that -- alas! -- his voice
was not what it once had been.
         Our downstairs neighbor Hans worked for many years for Herbert Breslin, a publicist and manager who had dealings with many singers and is credited with propelling the tenor Luciano Pavarotti to celebrity status.  Hans got to know many famous singers, and when Pavarotti went to China, Hans went along, as did Breslin and his wife.  “He doesn’t really need me,” Hans explained.  “He just wants to have a familiar face around.”  Breslin himself somewhat soured on his protégé in later years; in a published memoir he described the tenor's youthful voice as so beautiful it gave him goosebumps, but said that in his later years as a superstar Pavarotti was vain and lazy, with an appetite for money, women, and food. 
         Other singers whom Hans came to know included the Brazilian singer Bidú Sayão, whom he visited in Maine for many years after her retirement; Renata Tebaldi, whom he often saw in Italy; the Italian tenor Carlo Bergonzi; and the Spanish soprano Pilar Lorengar.  He has anecdotes about all of them, and also about the renowned Hungarian-born conductor Georg Solti and others, and knows of rare performances and rare recordings as well.  I have urged him to initiate an opera blog and tell these highly entertaining stories, but I doubt if he ever will.

Jerome Robbins, a terror on Broadway
but a cordial and timid partner at bridge.
         Our friend John tells how he terrorized a man who was known as the terror of Broadway.  Invited over for bridge by a dancer friend and his partner, John was presented to another guest whose name he caught as Jerry Rubins, a smallish and very elegant man, very composed, with a trim white beard, who would be the fourth at bridge.  The three others were novices at bridge, so John, though no expert, became the de facto authority of the occasion.  Later in the evening Jerry Rubins, who at the time was John's partner, looked at his hand, didn't know what to do, and exclaimed, "I'm scared!"  Then he giggled, as if savoring an emotion unknown to him; the others giggled too.  
         At the end of the evening John and Jerry were waiting for a taxi they would share uptown.  
         "Jerry," said John, "I gather from the conversation that you're in the theater." 
         "Oh yes," said Jerry, "director, choreographer, and stuff like that." 
         A creeping awareness began to take hold in John's mind.  "What did you say your name was?"
         "Jerome Robbins."
         John screamed from shock.  The mild-mannered and friendly "Jerry" was the brilliant but forbidding director and choreographer Jerome Robbins, a winner of multiple Academy and Tony Awards, who because of his demanding nature was known as the terror of Broadway.  But it all ended well; after that the four of them often played bridge.  
         (A personal aside:  I saw many of Robbins's ballets in New York, loved them all.  But my favorite ballet of all time was his "Illuminations," inspired by the poetry of Rimbaud; he caught the spirit of Rimbaud beautifully, and the final scene haunts me to this day: Profane Love, with blood running down his forearm from a gunshot wound, stares in wonder and regret -- biting regret, I suspect -- as Sacred Love, a female dancer in white, does arabesques back and forth, back and forth, upstage, embodying all those supreme aspirations that we all have and rarely fulfill.  Rimbaud, of course, had been shot by his enraged lover Verlaine in Brussels, during their adventurous wanderings together, after Verlaine had deserted his wife and infant daughter.  How I wish I could have met Robbins and thanked him for this memorable theatrical experience!)

It wouldn't be easy, being the sensitive
young son of this man.
         My own fleeting contact with celebrities include no such luminosities as Gypsy Rose Lee or Jackie Kennedy.  My first experience was at one remove from grandeur.  When I was teaching French at Columbia College,  Arthur MacArthur, the young son of the famous Douglas, turned up in one of my classes.  He was a sensitive, intelligent kid whose near flawless French accent implied close work over time with a private tutor.  One sensed about him that, through no fault of his own, he had been raised too much in the company of women (his mother, his amah in the Philippines), with little contact with boys his own age.  Even at Columbia he stood apart, would never be one of the gang.  Later on I learned how, under paternal pressure, he had tried on the uniform of a West Point cadet, but wisely knew it was all wrong for him.  Still later he shed the burden of his famous name, which came to him from Douglas’s father Arthur MacArthur, another general who had served in the Philippines.  I hope that, with his new persona, he has been able to at last be himself and find the fulfillment he needed.
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The Actors' Studio, within whose walls theatrical
wonders and horrors have been perpetrated.
         My other celebrities are not internationally known figures, but gifted directors in the world of the theater.  Long ago, during the folly of my attempts to be a playwright, I was invited to join the Playwrights Unit of the Actors Studio, the citadel of method acting, nested then as now in a former church on West 44th Street.  In those once hallowed premises I attended writers’ classes where Harold Clurman presided, and directors’ classes where Lee Strasberg reigned supreme.  The Studio was then a bit past its peak, having hatched any number of renowned actors who had gone on to fame and fortune: Marlon Brando, Julie Harris, Paul Newman, James Dean, Shelley Winters, and countless others.
Marilyn Monroe in The Prince and the Showgirl 
(1957), five years before her suicide.  This photo, 
with its touch of naiveté, conveys exactly what 
the photo at the Studio demonstrated.
         On the wall was a photograph of members sitting scattered about the vast room where classes were held; one's eye went immediately to a young blond woman sitting apart from the others: Marilyn Monroe.  Her radiant beauty was such that you simply could not not notice her.  A veteran member of the Studio told a bunch of us just when the photograph had been taken.  If you had any doubt about what is known as star quality, this photograph dispelled it.  Some people simply exude a magnetic charm.
         Lee Strasberg was a brilliant but savage teacher, quite willing to reduce to tears a young director whose work he relentlessly criticized, continuing with no notice of the tears till she dried them and listened to his critique.  Nothing fueled his sadism more than to sense – or imagine – a young director’s presumption that he could reveal the values of some time-honored piece of theater that had already seen scores, if not hundreds, of productions; such presumption he delighted in chewing up.  His taste for young women was also blunt and obvious.
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Lee Strasberg, teaching.
         I recall in particular two comments Strasberg made in the course of a class.  A very imaginative young director had presented a scene from Macbeth laden with special effects and symbolism.  When those present were invited to comment, I said that everything I had seen was fascinating, but the story of Macbeth had gotten lost.  When Strasberg critiqued the scene, he said that the Weird Sisters weren't weird enough, they were too human, too approachable.  "Imagine this," he said.  "A young man goes out on a cold winter day and sees a beautiful woman dancing naked in the snow and the cold.  She has to be a witch."
         The other comment concerned Marilyn Monroe, who was going to appear in the movie Some Like It Hot.  She would be playing with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in drag, whose real identity in the story she wasn't at first supposed to know.  She didn't know how to relate to them and therefore consulted her mentor, Strasberg.  
         "Marilyn," he said, "you've always told me that you'd like to have women friends, but you never have.  Here's your chance.  They can be the women friends you've always wanted."
         She must have absorbed this advice, for she played with the two actors in drag beautifully.  But if Marilyn Monroe lacked women friends, it's easy to see why.  Her beauty was such that it would eclipse any other woman.  When she committed suicide in 1962 at age thirty-six, Strasberg gave the eulogy at her funeral.
         Harold Clurman, unlike Strasberg, was not a true teacher.  If someone seemed to disagree with him he simply pulled rank, declaring that he knew more about it than they did, rather than gently leading the offender to realize the error of his ways.  In some of his comments there was a sense of a deep hurt; for all his professional success, something was lacking.  When the subject of transmigration of souls surfaced once, he declared emphatically, “No thanks!  Once is enough!”  So unlike Strasberg, who seemed impervious to hurt.
         When the Studio got a grant, they mounted two memorable productions on Broadway.  Strasberg did Chekhov’s Three Sisters, which I recall vividly, and Clurman did the French playwright Giraudoux’s Tiger at the Gates (La Guerre de Troye n’aura lieu), a witty and moving account of the beginning of the Trojan War.  When the curtain first went up, there was a haunting tableau showing Hector’s wife Andromache and the doomed visionary Cassandra momentarily frozen in place.  One knew at once that this was a story steeped in legend and myth.  No question, these were brilliant directors.

 Courtesy of The Villager
        Another director whom I had more contact with was Gene Frankel, a former pupil of Strasberg’s, whose school’s classes for writers I attended in an upstairs studio on MacDougal Street here in the West Village in the 1950s.  The Gene Frankel of that time was not the bearded patriarch of later years, but a cleanshaven man in his forties with a high forehead, dark hair and heavy dark eyebrows over dark eyes, robust features that showed great character, and an expressive voice capable of many modulations.  Attending writing classes there included the privilege of sitting in on Frankel’s directors’ classes, where he held forth from a thronelike central seat, smoking steadily in violation of the city’s fire regulations.  An intensely serious man, he seemed rarely to smile.  I marveled at his understanding of human nature, of the words and gestures that we use to express ourselves.  Frankel saw my first one-act play and gave valuable criticism before letting it be done in his workshop theater; above all, it needed pruning.  A young actor I met there told me that he had learned more in one month of Frankel’s classes than he had in a year or two elsewhere.  
         Although he was a brilliant teacher and director, Frankel was always a bit on the fringe of the theater world, preferring the greater freedom of Off Broadway.  Among his directorial successes were Jean Genet's The Blacks, which ran for far longer than he had anticipated, and Arthur Kopit's Indians; I saw them both, they were memorable.  But at times he could be ruthlessly candid, telling of being invited to go off somewhere in the Midwest to work with a director who was “very inexperienced and very stupid.”  And he was quite capable of telling an unduly presumptuous young director in his class, "The theater has no place for you -- get out!"  
         At times he also exhibited a touch of homophobia.  Telling of a attending a performance of a play whose "author" -- probably an adapter at best -- was young, inexperienced, and flustered, he asked, "Who is he?  The director's lover?  If we must have homosexuals in the theater, let them at least be like Oscar Wilde!"  But what did this mean?  A preference for polished brilliance over inexperience and fluster?  He said this without seeming to be aware of a gay contingent in his classes.  Unlike Strasberg at the Studio, who, though himself resolutely heterosexual, clearly knew that his classes included just such a contingent.
         But despite these occasional outbursts, Frankel was usually quiet and contained.  If one entered his office, one generally found him staring with great concentration at a chessboard; it took a few ahems and other subtle or not so subtle hints to indicate your humble presence and take counsel of his wisdom.  
         Asked in later years if he would like to retire, Frankel replied, "How can I retire?  Directing is in my blood, and teaching is in my bones!"  He died in 2005; a theater bearing his name has long existed on Bond Street and strives to keep his name and legacy alive.  I wish them well in their endeavors.

Thought for the day:  Silence, the undersong of life.

(c)  2012  Clifford Browder

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