Being on Jeopardy: Thrilling, Disappointing.

JeopardyYes, I starred on Jeopardy -but not in the way you might think. First off, you have to audition to get on the show, and this involves the kind of cramming you haven’t done since college: can you name the provinces of Canada? (Manitoba, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Quebec...any others? How about the Seven Dwarfs? Doc, Dopey, Sneezy…which President, aside from Lincoln and Kennedy, was assassinated?) Anyway, it took me three tries to pass the quiz, three trips in my Honda Civic through the Los Angeles haze to the studio.   I finally made the cut and was shepherded one Monday morning into a set of bleachers along with another twenty-five contestants. They tape five shows in one day and it’s your duty to sit there ’till your show is called. This means you’re watching two, three, four other sets of contestants go through their paces until you get on. In between the taping segments Alex Trebek comes over and chats. He’s as nice and personable as he can be. We watched show Number Two tape its three segments. As it happened, the final category on this show was Playwrights Who Are Also Actors -and the answer contained the names Sam Shepard, Jason Miller and Noel Coward. In the break, as they were setting up for show number three, Alex drifts over to keep us entertained and someone in the second row says, “I know who Sam Shepard is, but who’s Noel Coward?”  And Alex is right there with the definition: “He wrote comedies, the most famous is probably Private Lives -and he wrote songs. Does anyone know Mad Dogs and Englishmen?” Well, this pressed my button. Noel Coward has been an idol of mine since I was sixteen and discovered a volume of his plays in the school library. I can quote you Chapter and Verse. I stood up from the bleacher bench. “I do,” I said and launched into the verse:

In tropical climes there are certain times of day/When all the citizens retire to tear their clothes off and perspire./It’s one of those rules the greatest fools obey/Because the sun is much too sultry and one must avoid its ultry-violet ray. The people around me were open-mouthed. These were all folks from Laguna and Boise, Idaho. Nobody had the slightest sympathy for obscure Brit lyrics: “The natives grieve when the white men leave their huts/Because they’re obviously, definitely NUTS! MAD DOGS AND ENGLISHMEN GO OUT IN THE NOONDAY SUN/THE TOUGHEST BURMESE BANDIT/CAN NEVER UNDERSTAND IT  I realized I shouldn’t perform the whole number, standing there in the stands, it would take eight minutes, the song has four choruses! I also realized I was making a spectacle of myself. “I think that’s enough,” I said, sitting back down. Alex was kind enough to applaud, and my seat-mates followed suit, though only half-heartedly, I fear. They must have resented my raising my profile in such a garish fashion. Of course, after this display of ego, expectations were high for my performance as a contestant. But I’m afraid here I was a disappointment, most shamefacedly to myself -because I lost in my own category! Musical theater! The query was simple: this Irving Berlin musical gave Ethel Merman one of her biggest hits. The answer is simple, isn’t it? Annie Get Your GutObviously, it’s Annie Get Your Gun, and I was about to press the button (ahead of everyone, I may add) when it suddenly occurred to me that Merman had also had a giant success in Berlin’s Call Me Madam. God, which one?? And before I could ring in, my neighbor had beaten me to the punch. Shit! I’d nailed this! I’d been distracted by knowing too much!! Damn. In the unforgiving, relentless California sunlight I trudged back to the parking lot and my Honda. Defeated in my own field. I’ll never live it down -and I still haven’t. 

Algonquin Mem’ries, Pt. 1: Dorothy Loudon

Dorothy LoudonNow that the Algonquin is closing its cabaret room, the Oak Room, I’m prompted to recall my most memorable moments there. I’d always been crazy about Dorothy Loudon. She was so hip and funny. I’d always rooted for her while, for years, she hung around the edges of the business, playing the clubs that appreciated her unique and urbane blend of irony and slapstick, honing her talent until finally she burst upon Broadway with her screamingly funny portrait of Miss Hannigan in Annie. I didn’t realize that what made her acid characterization so viciously heartfelt was the accumulated frustration she’d had to endure year after year on the fringes of success. To deal with this, she had turned to alcohol.

Hollywood MusicalsIt was at a book party that Donald Smith organized for a volume of photos of Broadway musicals and their stars. Celeste Holm was there (Oklahoma, Bloomer Girl) and Jane Powell (Meet Me in St. Louis, the stage version) and Ann Miller (Sugar Babies). Don had engaged pianist Forrest Perrin to play the Oak Room’s Steinway. In his gracious, friendly, mild-mannered way Forrest accompanied several of the lesser-known performers who filled the spaces between the star turns, people like Karen Mason and Maureen McGovern. But there was a hush of anticipation as Dorothy climbed up on the small platform. Everyone in this very New York crowd knew Dorothy’s style: funny, hip, outrageous. “Let’s do Hard-Hearted Hannah,” she said to Forrest. “B Flat.” Forrest smiled at her apologetically. “I’m sorry, Dorothy, I don’t know that one.” he said. Dorothy rocked back on her heels in mock amazement. She grasped the edge of the open piano lid in a comic stagger. “What?” she inquired, “Did I hear you correctly?” The edge in her voice captured everyone’s attention. “You don’t know Hard-Hearted Hannah???” I saw Forrest blanche.“Did you, by any chance, bring the sheet?” he asked. Dorothy rolled her eyes in comic exaggeration. “C’mon, it’s a standard –you don’t need a sheet.” Forrest gave her a weak smile. He opened his hands helplessly. “Dorothy, I’m sorry.” Dorothy became aware everyone was watching. She turned to the crowd. “Can you believe this??” she asked them. “He doesn’t know Hard Hearted Hannah.” She called into the room: “Donald, what kind of pianna-player did you book for this party?” I suddenly realized Dorothy had been drinking, and was now wound up. “In all of New York, you searched and searched ‘till you found the ONE guy who doesn’t know Hard-Hearted Hannah. Well, congratulations.” she turned back to Forrest. “How long have you been doing this?” she asked. “I mean, NOT playing Hard-Hearted Hannah?” Poor Forrest looked like he wanted to crawl under the piano. He couldn’t answer, he was too humiliated. “Is there anyone in this room…” Dorothy had the microphone now. “…anyone in this room who can play this song?” Well, I could have done it –and in B Flat, too. But I wasn’t about to embarrass Forrest, who was a friend. Seventy five people were witness to the poor guy’s vicious treatment at the hands of this woman who, until now, in my mind, had been a shining light of intelligence, humor and brilliant iconoclasm in the world of entertainment. Well well, I thought, you live and learn. The charming, funny, young entertainer I’d known for years had -with her access to stardom- allowed herself to unleash this most unappealing side of herself. I’m sorry I had to see it.

Gene the Barber & Brad Pitt’s Offer

Hollywood

After the fancy stylists in Hollywood, It was a relief to come home to my regular barber, Eugene in New York. He had a comfy, unpretentious shop on Third Avenue in the twenties. “Hey, stranger,” he greeted me. “When’d you get back?” “Last week,” I said, as he drew the sheet over me. I was always struck by the care Gene took in arranging this sheet, almost as if he were setting the table for a banquet, smoothing it, snapping it neatly closed at the neck.  He made a point of treating his customers to his balletic repertoire of moves. I usually bypassed the shampoo, my custom being to soap my hair myself in the morning shower. I took off my glasses, and Gene misted me with moisture from the spray bottle. “Where were you again?” “Los Angeles. We were shooting a TV show. I brought you a coupla photos.” I’d come back from Hollywood with some fun shots, taken on the set at Universal. I always tried to bring Gene some provocative tidbit from my precarious freelance life.  What he enjoyed most was hearing about whatever movie names I’d encountered, the more famous the better. Gene cheerfully admitted he was a little star-struck: “Oh yeah, I read People Magazine, like everybody.” He was squinting at the picture.  “Who’s that?” he asked. “Looks like Al Capone.”

            “Believe it or not, that’s Lainie Kazan,” I said. “She’s made up to look like George Gershwin.” “You’re kiddin’ me.” “No, it’s a fantasy. Lainie KazanY’ever watch The Amazing Stories? It’s a supernatural type show, like The Twilight Zone.“Maybe. I think Danny might watch it.”  I could tell from his inflection that he’d never seen the series. “Well, in this show, George Gershwin comes back from the dead to deliver new tunes.”“So why is it Lainie Kazan?”      “She plays a psychic who channels his spirit. There’s a big thunderclap and suddenly she’s Gershwin.” There was a silence.  I felt the scissors snip-snip-snipping behind my head. “Who else did you meet?”  Gene wasn’t interested in the mechanics of plot; he wanted to hear about celebrities. “You know who Carrie Fisher is?” “She was in that George Lucas picture, right? Star Wars?”“Right. Princess Leia.”            

Carrie Fisher“What’s she like, attractive?” “Oh yeah, and a great sense of humor. Probably the funniest woman out there. She writes, too.”Gene let this go by. I could tell he wasn’t particularly impressed by the people I’d brought him so far.  “Didja meet anybody like Julia Roberts? Or Brad Pitt?” “Nah. Sorry to disappoint you.” A feeling of irritation was growing in me. This barber on lower Third Avenue was telling me I’d come up short? My names weren’t glamorous enough for Gene, the celebrity connoisseur? Apparently not. Gene wanted A-List, twenty-mill a picture, red-carpet stars, not this pallid, nothing B-list I’d supplied. Where was Tom Cruise? Lindsay Lohan?  Where was Drew Barrymore? His implied dismissal of my talented friends annoyed me.  Not good enough? Look, I felt like saying, Carrie Fisher is the female lead in a fantasy classic.

             I could sense my frustration leading me to a sudden, vengeful idea.“Listen, Gene: suppose Brad Pitt were to walk in here and sit down for a cut.” “Yeah…?”  “And suppose, when you finished, he said to you, ‘Hey, Man, I really like your work. How’d you like to come to South America with me for three months?  I’m shooting a picture in Rio, and I want you to do the hair. We start in May.’”

            There was another silence behind me; snip-snippety-snip. And then Gene said: “Would that be for the women as well?”“No, no no, the women have their own guy; just the men. And he’d offer you twenty thousand a week.” Snip, snip. snippety-snip. Snip.  I could almost hear the ka-ching ringing in Gene’s mind as he did the figuring. Three months (twelve weeks) at twenty thousand per. Two hundred and forty thousand dollars. To Gene, that was probably three years earnings.  College tuition for Danny.  Roof repair on his house in Montclair.  The operation his mom’s been postponing.“But who would I get for here?” “Ah, Gene, you must know somebody.” Behind me, I heard a sudden intake of breath and then, excitedly: “Angelo could do it!” “Sure, Gene, what about Angelo!” I had no idea who Angelo was, but Hey, I thought, we’re really putting this together. I couldn’t believe how easily Gene had swallowed my bait. “Would it have to be May?”“Why, what’s the difference?” “Danny’s graduating high school in June. I need to be there.” But he was thinking about it, I could tell, trying in his mind to make it work out.  He didn’t speak for perhaps ninety seconds.  Then he said,“Look, I, I’d like to, but I dunno.”  I said nothing, wondering what was triggering his hesitation.  “What would I do with my guys, my customers? These people depend on me. I grew intense. “Gene, wouldn’t they understand? Wouldn’t they be glad for you? It’d only be for three months. Angelo could cover it.” “They depend on me.” he repeated. “To be here.” Snip. Snippetysnip. “You know, I have one guy, Leslie, he’s got a steel plate in his head from a piece of shrapnel he caught in Vietnam, and the surgery made this little cranial dip, right in the back. You have to be very careful when you cut around that. Use the razor.” Snip.  “I’m not sure Angelo could handle one of those.” Snippetysnip. Pause. “Yeah, Leslie.  He’s comin’ in Thursday.” My heart was beginning to sink. I had no idea Gene would take this adolescent prank of mine so seriously.  Cranial dip, my God.  But nothing could make me pull out now; my malicious genie was in full swing.Brad Pitt “Well, Gene,” I said, “maybe you should think about it –because it could be a great opportunity, with the publicity you’d bring back, wow: men’s hair on the new Brad Pitt flick—boy, you could probably parlay that into a new location, maybe uptown, Madison Avenue. You know: Stylist to the Stars—“                  I couldn’t resist, I half-turned to look at him. I saw him smile, sweet, but with a touch of sheepishness in it, almost an apology.  The smile carried a certain resignation, it revealed the corpse of an ambition I sensed had once burned within him…an ambition that might have taken him higher. He was good; if he’d gone with his impulse he might easily have become a high-priced stylist, like Vidal Sassoon or Fredric Fekkai. But the ambition had been smothered by the necessity of providing for a wife and when Danny came along he’d had to give up his mobility. He put the down payment on the house in Montclair, signed the mortgage papers and that was it. Now he was anchored, his life was sealed, immobilized. His choices had hemmed him in. It was too late to go from Country Mouse to City Mouse. Too late to play at the Big Table. “These peole depend on me,” he repeated. He undraped my sheet and shook it out with a gentle wave. He was looking a little sheepish. But he smiled. “You had me goin’ there, you really did.”  I got out of the chair.  I was suddenly ashamed of my childishness, forcing this tease of a mind-game on him. “Well, okay, Gene, then I’m afraid Mr. Pitt must with-draw the offer.”   He almost blushed. “It was nice while it lasted.” he said, and now his smile was the warm, friendly smile I always got from Gene. I had an overwhelming impulse to give him a hug. If it hadn’t felt like an apology.

 

Anthony Quinn Has to Win -on Tour with Zorba

My friend Shadow Rincing was on tour with Anthony Quinn in Zorba –the Musical. I’m not using her real name, and you’ll see why. She wouldn’t like me to tell this tale out of school. This was a lo-o-ong haul, over a year, a bus-and-truck company, playing Civic auditoriums around the country: Atlanta, San Diego, Houston. The houses were always full, 4500 people. Quinn was a movie star, he had that elemental masculine quality that you get in some Continental actors like Raf Vallone and Serge Reggiani, heavy-bearded, gruff-voiced, in a sensual, animal way. Quinn was part Mexican. And he was good, but he was a petty tyrant: he frowned on intra-company romances, he was such an egotist that, in his mind, every girl in the cast “belonged” to him. Even if he didn’t choose to exercise his droit de seigneur, he was a dog in the manger. And he took huge liberties, he went way beyond the norm, actually massaging the anus of one of the dancers as she sat in his lap in Act Two.       I was shocked when Shadow told me this. “Can’t she object?” I wondered. “Go to the management?”  “One doesn’t object to Tony,” Shadow told me, “he’ll have you replaced on some pretext.” She shrugged. “He’s the star, they’re paying him fifty thousand a week.”

Shadow was stunningly attractive herself, and, hearing this, I kind of feared for her, but she was older, and Quinn’s tastes didn’t lean that way. When they hit Washington, Quinn had an exhibit of his paintings at the infamous Watergate complex. They were like third-rate Rouaults, great blocks, chunks of black and white, faces limned in broad charcoal strokes. He sold them for thousands. People paid his prices because he was who he was. A movie star.        

When the company hit Boston, I flew up from New York, and Shadow performed the act I’d written her –for her castmates, who went wild with enthusiasm. Quinn gave her grudging approval, “Very nice,” he said. He didn’t want anyone to be the star but him. The next night I watched Quinn onstage and something wasn’t right, he was off, somehow. Off in his timing, off-pitch on his vocals, and without the dynamic energy he always showed, even at seventy-three. “You know why,” Shadow said to me later. No, I didn’t. But it appeared that something had gone wrong with the nightly chess game: each night, ninety minutes before curtain, Quinn had one of the actors called to his dressing room to play him a game of chess. He claimed it relaxed him before a performance. Now the one guy in the company who knew chess was a sweet-natured character-man named Vonn. Now Vonn wasn’t particularly eager to be on call for a nightly bout with Quinn –but there seemed to be no way to refuse: it was a command performance. Of course, here was the tacit agreement –and Vonn understood immediately- he had to lose. It was the unspoken command.

Quinn never mentioned anything, but Vonn didn’t need his sixth sense to understand that Tony’s ego was simultaneously so raging and so fragile that –well, you get it. “I couldn’t help it,” Vonn told us, as the three of us sat with a beer after the show. “I couldn’t not take his queen –she was out there with her legs wide open. It would have been too obvious to let her escape.”

“Well,” Shadow responded, “you saw what happened to his performance. You better watch yourself –don’t do that again. If you want to stay in this company.”  And Vonn watched himself carefully…and made sure he never won another game.

Latino Kid, Life-Changer Subway Choice

New York PostManhattan subway platform, 103rd and Broadway. Two-thirty on a Thursday afternoon. I see a Latino father and his boy, the kid couldn’t be more than eleven years old. “Manuel,” I hear the man say to his son –his English carries a heavy Puerto Rican accent- “take these, get us a paper.” And he hands the kid three quarters. The news-stand’s in the middle of the platform. Kid crosses over, looks down, sees the array of newspapers laid out at his feet. But he doesn’t want El Diario, he wants the paper that speaks English. My immediate thought, observing this, was: Dad wants his boy to assimilate, to speak the language of the new country. The kid is pondering it. He’s got seventy-five cents. That’ll buy The Post -and The News is a quarter cheaper.NY Daily News If he bought the News, he could bring one of those quarters back to his father. So which one? The Post has a headline about Mayor Bloomberg and a possible fare hike.  The news has some gossip about Lindsay Lohan and her DUI arrest. Both papers scream Tabloid, Wuxtry, getcher Schlock Tabloid right here, only fifty cents. Watching this kid’s indecision as he hesitates over the choice, I feel something move me. Here’s a young mind, a blank canvas ready to receive impressions. What he learns now, at eleven, will color his whole life. Impulsively, I reach in my pocket, drag out a couple of singles, hand the dealer two-fifty. I pick up the New York Times. “New York TimesManuel,” I say to him, commandingly. Kid looks at me, wide-eyed, wary: I thrust the paper at him: “This is The Times, Manuel,” I tell him, “it’s the best paper in the country, maybe in the world. I’m giving it to you. But I won’t be here tomorrow, so it’s up to you to stick with this, all right? Every day. You won’t go wrong. Make it a habit, Okay?” The kid, astonished, takes the paper and runs back to his father. And the train comes and I get on a different car so they won’t see me crying.

Betty’s Dad, Doing the Incontinental

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Picture of Veteran Standing in front of Canandaigua VA. Good health for a lifetime. Veteran Ed Gates shares the story of turning his health around.

Betty’s mother Addie died pushing Herbert’s wheelchair up the ramp of the Veteran’s Administration Medical Center in Tacoma, Washington. She simply keeled over. A man named Kormer grabbed the chair as it threatened to roll backward down the ramp. Herbert’s reaction was primal and childlike, as always: looking down at Addie’s thin, crumpled body, he sensed she was dead. “Who’s gonna do my laundry?” he whimpered. It was the same high-pitched, strangulated whimper his voice had become ever since he’d been gassed in the first World War. Mustard-gas. He’d been in that chair since 1936…with only half a mind, reduced to the level of a eleven-year -old.   Betty had to do something with him. He couldn’t manage by himself and there was no-one else. She sold the house and moved him into a new VA Hospital in Tarrytown, New York. She was on the East Coast now, trying to make it as a singer. “I’d like to go visit him,” she said to me one hot, broiling Saturday in July. “Just take him down by the riverbank, let him look at the Hudson. Could we?” That was the summer I had a brand-new Pontiac convertible –I’d won it on a quiz show.  So I took Betty up the Henry Hudson Parkway and waited in the VA parking lot until Betty came down with her father. It fell to me to lift the frail, eighty-nine year old Herbert from his chair into the passenger seat. I remember thinking, God, he’s just a bag of bones. He had a stainless-steel canister which he needed to press to his groin. They’d given it to him because he was incontinent, couldn’t control his urine. I remember thinking, Don’t piss on the seat, you old bastard. We set off, and I drove slowly so we wouldn’t jar that canister loose. Slowly, slowly, foot on the brake, inching down the hill to the river, the blazing sun nearly roasting us. Betty“They making you comfortable there, Daddy?” Betty asked him from the back-seat. I glanced sideways at his drawn, sunken face to hear his response. He had a three-day growth of white stubble and I wondered who shaved him, or if he could do it himself. “They put me with this other fellah,” Herb said. “He’s always in the bathroom when I have to go.” Betty had learned how to deal with these querulous complaints: don’t try to address them, simply go on to the next question. “How’s the food?” she continued now.  “The what?” I found that whimper of his, produced without breath from the front of his throat, almost comic, like the voice of a cartoon character. It was nearly impossible for me not to break into laughter each time he spoke.  I wiped my forehead with the back of my hand. Jesus, it’s hot, I thought, must be in the nineties. I glanced surreptitiously at my watch. We’d been sitting there for over half an hour. “The food, Daddy,” Betty repeated, “when they give you dinner, what do you get? Soup? Meatloaf?”   In reply, Herbert made a sound of urgency: “Aanh.” “What is it, Daddy?” “Aaanh.” He pointed to his lap. He kept muttering Aanh. I saw his eyes begin to fill with tears –and then I sensed a wave of embarrassment emanating from him. He was jabbing his finger at his groin now, in a steady motion, Point, Point, Point -all the while crying Aanh, Aaanh. Something was painful, something he couldn’t -or wouldn’t- articulate. I put my hand on the canister, even as I realized the problem –Oww! The damn thing had heated in the sun, become too hot to touch, was even now searing the skin on Herbert’s groin! Christ, how bizarre! “Betty!” I cried, “get the Kleenex! In the glove compartment!” Herbert was squirming in agony. With a wad of Kleenex protecting my fingers from the sizzling can, I slapped it away from Herb’s lap. It bounced, leaking, to the floor. The harsh smell of urine wafted into my nostrils as, wrinkling my nose in distaste, I placed the Kleenex under his genitals. I put the car in gear, shaking my head in disbelief, and headed back up the hill, faster now. In the drive-way, a VA attendant lifted Herb back into his wheelchair. I pointed to the canister on the floor. “And take that with you,” I said, keeping my voice under control. I headed back towards the Parkway. We rode in silence for ten minutes and then Betty said: “You were planning to sell this car, weren’t you?” I gave Betty a twisted smile. “Mm hmm.” She started laughing. “I think my Dad may have depreciated it –by about ten thousand dollars.”

I’ll have more to tell about Betty in future posts. She was an amazing character.

Korman the Purist and Horn-Man Herby

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Never accept a favor from someone you find insufferable. Korman was going away for a week and he offered me the use of his sexy two-seater Mazda Miata, while he was gone. Naively, I took him up on it. This was a mistake because now I was obligated to him, and he felt he had the right to commandeer me each evening the minute I got up from the piano. I had a job entertaining, singing Gershwin, Bernstein and Cole Porter at Starr Boggs fancy restaurant in Westhampton Beach. His name was Bob Korman and he wanted desperately to be part of the Musical Theater. He was one of those people who tried to impress you by requesting obscure songs from forgotten musicals: “Can you play His Girl Back Home? You know, the song they cut from South Pacific?” I could. I did. “How about It’s Bad For Me? From Nymph Errant?” I played it. With the verse. There was something seductive about this game, getting the answers right, never letting him stump me. Trouble was, when I got off the stand, he wouldn’t leave me alone. “Got an idea I’d like to discuss with you.” he said one night. “I’m getting the rights to My Man Godfrey,” he told me, naming a classic thirties screwball comedy, “and I think I can interpolate ten Cole Porter songs and make it a musical.” I sighed. It was one of those half-baked ideas that amateurs come up with. You can’t shoe-horn established tunes into a play, it won’t work, it’s like trying to graft an armadillo kidney into a swan.

My Man Godfrey

“I’ve got the filmscript at home and the Porter songbook. Would you come take a look?” Damn, I thought, why did I ever use his stupid Mazda? “See, here where she gets a crush on Godfrey, You’d Be So Easy to Love would fit perfectly. He was like a shy schoolkid, seeking teacher’s approval. “Except, Bob,” I countered, “at the end of the song she says It does seem a shame/That you can’t see/Your future with me.” Korman’s face fell. “You think that invalidates the idea?” “Unless you want to re-write the lyric.” “No, no, I don’t want to touch the lyrics.” “You could try You Do Something to Me in that spot.” I offered, and immediately regretted abetting the idea of this dumb project. It would still come out like Frankenstein’s monster, forced and lifeless. And, just to make matters even more fun, in addition to his amateurishness and his insistent pushiness, Bob was a drinker. By the end of the any given evening he was close to falling-down sloshed. In fact, he’d run his lovely little Mazda into a tree one night, heading home. The cops had given him a summons and he’d had to pay a stiff fine. It Had To Be YouStill and all, I couldn’t entirely dislike him. He was so earnest in his desire to make a contribution to musicals –and, of course, this was my obsession as well. I wanted to create original shows. So, in a way, we were bonded. And then one night Herby the lawyer came into Starr’s with his trumpet and set off an incident. Herby Westheimer was a personal injury lawyer. He had a pronounced Brooklyn accent and a wife to match, Gloria, with big, dark bouffant hair and long, blood-red nails. In his youth, Herby had been a club- date musician, and he wondered could he bring in his instrument? “Maybe I could sit in for a few tunes?” “Sure,” I said, “what do you like to play?” “It Hadda Be You,” said Herby, “Original is G,” he said.

TrumpetI gave him a four bar intro, and he swung into this great, well-known standard, one of the songs my friend Margaret Whiting referred to as an Ah Tune –when the audience hears the first few bars, they go Ahh. At his table, I saw Korman wince. This selection was too plebeian for him, not from a show, just a pop tune, and not even by one of the great composers like Porter, Gershwin or Rodgers. Herby played just like his persona: loud and buoyant, without subtlety, hitting a clinker now and then, boisterously good natured, having a great time. He loved the music.

Well, this display infuriated Bob, who was already onto his fourth drink. He waved at Herby disparagingly, impatiently. “Sit down!” he cried. “Let John sing.” Because, in an effort to showcase Herby, I’d left out my vocals…to let his trumpet take center stage. I was having fun, listening to Herby and his bumptious, innocent style. The customers loved it when an impromptu performance like this happened. Gloria, the bouffant wife, was beaming. It was a good exercise for me to play familiar tunes in unfamiliar keys. But Korman was glowering into his glass. “Jesus,” he muttered, “the people they let in here.” He rose and confronted Herby, weaving slightly. “You’ve gotta stop that.” he told him, “it ruins the songs.” “Who are you?” Herby asked him. “John’s here to play showtunes,” Korman continued. “He doesn’t need any trumpet. Let him sing the lyric.” “Nobody’s stopping him,” Herby countered. Bob stumbled back to his table and finished his fifth drink. Herby wanted to play I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter. “Original’s C.” he informed me. But suddenly, Korman was back: “You gotta stop it—“ he muttered, and simultaneously put his hands on the bell of Herby’s horn and gave an ineffective yank. Herby tightened his grip, Bob yanked again and suddenly an insane struggle erupted in the midst of the dining room. Bob, holding the trumpet in one hand, took an ineffective swing at Herby with the other. Heads turned, forks dropped. Herby gave Klineman a shove and sent him crashing into a table of four near the piano. “Jesus—“ someone said, and I rose from the keyboard and grabbed Korman.  “Hey, Bob,” I said, seizing him by the shoulders, “you don’t want to do that.”  I walked him firmly back to his table. “I’ll sing the lyrics, okay?” Bob’s eyes filled with tears. “Without the lyrics, you’re only getting half the song…” he said. “I mean, Johnny Mercer, Lorenz Hart, Jesus…” In that moment, my heart went out to him; he cared so very deeply, and he was never going to be part of it. All that week, the incident haunted me. The following Friday the jitney dropped me off in Westhampton Beach…and Korman was waiting for me. “John,” he said, “you’ve got to help me. Look:” He proffered a letter. It was from a Herby’s office in Brooklyn –and it was a summons: you are hereby ordered to appear November 20th to answer charges of assault against the plaintiff, Herb Westheimer. If convicted, the summons continued, Herby was requesting damages of one hundred and twenty million dollars –plus court costs! In addition to quoting this outrageous sum, the summons had to be answered in a courtroom in Staten Island. On November 20th, three weeks from now. Klineman was staring at me helplessly. “What am I gonna do, John?” “I dunno, Bob,” I countered. “I guess you’ll have to appear.” He put his hand on my wrist: “Would you talk to him?” I had no idea what to say. “I’ll think about it,” I finally managed. That night, Herby and Gloria came in and I sat with them. Gloria couldn’t stop talking about what a jerk Korman was. Herby smiled. “Did he get my letter?” “Did he get it?? I said, “he’s practically under the table!” “Yeah, well he’s got to learn he can’t act that way,” said the lawyer; “I decided to teach him a lesson.” “Herby,” I asked him, “you’re asking for a hundred twenty million, right?” Herby smiled. “Would you settle for sixty?” I inquired. Herby’s grin got wider. “Tell him to write me a letter of apology –and make it sincere.” And you know what? Korman, so relieved that Herby wasn’t going through with the suit, wrote the most profound and beautiful letter. Whew.

Nurse Jane, My Gorgon Neighbor

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Matsys' Ugly Duchess Painting

She had taken me to court, so there was a distinct lack of cordiality when we ran into each other on the elevator. On the day after our adjudication, she got on at the fourth floor and I decided to try a pleasant overture: “Hello, Jayne,” I ventured, but she averted her eyes.  All right, I thought, if that’s how you want it.   Her complaint had been Unnecessary noise.         The judge, a woman, had asked me: “Mr. Meyer, is there any reason you have to play your piano after eleven in the evening?” I felt like saying, Look, Judge, you can’t schedule musical ideas to arrive before eleven pm. I’m a composer, and if I can’t work my ideas out on the keyboard I could very well lose them by morning.Two hundred dollars fine,” ruled the judge. “And if you come before me again, I’ll double that.” Jayne had found an ally in female solidarity. Though I doubted that being female was doing Jayne much good. She was in her mid-forties, stocky, with dark, bushy brows. Her face was set in a determined, I’ll-get-through-this, expression. I was reminded of the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland. I never saw anyone accompany her in or out of our building on West 57th street, certainly not any men. Jayne worked as a nurse at Roosevelt Hospital, just up the street on Ninth Avenue. Maybe she was warmer with her patients than she appeared on the outside. It was as if she was encased in a sheath of suspicion and negativity. How bizarre then, to come home at two-thirty one snowy January morning and find her sitting alone and vulnerable, in the corner of our small lobby. She seemed distraught; her hair, usually in a neat, black bun, was hanging over her face, and her eye make-up was smeared. Strangest of all, her naked calves protruded from beneath a navy bathrobe…and she was barefoot. “Jayne,” I cried, involuntarily. “What are you doing down here?” Bill, the night elevator man, threw me a significant glance. “She’s been like that since ten-thirty.” Jayne didn’t seem to react to the fact that we were talking about her. She seemed totally disoriented. “Jayne,” I said, kneeling before her, “what’s the matter?” She stared at me without seeming to recognize me. I couldn’t help thinking of Shakespeare’s Ophelia, floating in the stream. I held her blank but intense eyes for a few seconds, and then she said: “If you come upstairs, you can hear them.” “Who, Jayne?” “The rats.” Jayne’s eyes went funny with fear. “They’re in the walls.” I had a shivery moment. Rats in the walls. It was like something out of Poe. “How do you know, Jayne?” “I can hear them. They’re scratching.” Suddenly she stood up. “I’ll show you.” she said, reaching for my hand. “Come upstairs, you can hear them.” This was the first time she had touched me; I had the instinct to recoil, but at the same time a wave of empathy washed over me and, notwithstanding our courtroom hostility, I found myself feeling sorry for this suddenly helpless woman who had been victimized by…what? A chemical imbalance? Paranoia? An epileptic seizure? We stepped inside the elevator, Bill closed the door, drew the gate and we rose to the fourth floor. Her apartment opened directly onto the living room, just like mine. Boom, and you were inside. No foyer, no hallway, you were simply there. There was a standing lamp, two table lamps plus an overhead fixture, and Jayne had every light blazing. Bill stood respectfully outside the open apartment door as Jayne led me to the sofa and pointed to the wall above it. “Hear them?” she asked me. “Can you hear them? They’re in there.” I stayed motionless for a long moment, not daring to breathe. I couldn’t hear anything. I turned to Jayne. “Are they anywhere else? Maybe the kitchen?” “No, the bathroom, I heard them in the bathroom.” I let her lead me into the bathroom and stood by the tub. She pulled the shower curtain aside and gestured towards the pink tiles. “Keep still,” she said, “you’ll hear them.” Again there was nothing. “Jayne, I’m sorry –I don’t hear them.” Her eyes rolled wildly about the bathroom. “Scratch scratch, scratch scratch, they’re in there!” It was then I decided her condition was beyond any aid I could give. She needed professional help. I heard Bill’s voice come in from the hall. ”I have a call, I’m going down.” “Just a minute—“ I yelled. I turned to Jayne. “Where are your shoes?” She frowned. “What?” “Put on some shoes, Jayne, we’ll go and get help.” Her eyes fixed on me with a light of hope and then, suddenly obedient, she left the bathroom and disappeared into another room. I realized she’d been waiting for an authoritative voice to tell her what to do. It was ironic, given our history, that the voice should be mine. Jayne returned, wearing her bedroom slippers. She looked at me expectantly. “You have your keys?” I asked her. She nodded. “Okay then, let’s go.” I led her into the hall, where Bill had been waiting with the elevator door open. “I’ve got a call,” he repeated. “Two seconds,” I told him. “Lock up, Jayne.” Jayne turned the key in the top lock, the bottom lock, and we joined Bill. He gave me a quick, quizzical look as the car descended, but I couldn’t have answered his unspoken question. I had no idea what I was going to do with Jayne. As we reached the lobby, it hit me. I needed to get her to a doctor, get her some kind of sedation. Maybe she would need serious therapy eventually, but for tonight she had to conquer her irrational panic. I guided her through the abbreviated vestibule and stopped at the door. “Wait here,” I told her. I stepped out onto chilly fifty-seventh street. Three-oh-five in the morning, a lone taxi cruising slowly towards me on the wide, wet street, with its yellow light. I waved him to the curb and ran to the window on the driver’s side:     “I have a lady who needs to get to Roosevelt Hospital.” I said. “You know where the Emergency entrance is?” He nodded, and I ran back to the vestibule door to fetch Jayne. “Okay, Jayne,” I said, “we’re gonna get you some help.” It was slow going, Jayne would not be hurried. Twenty-five feet from the building to the street, it took an eternity. Shuffle, shuffle, one slipper-clad foot after the other, in the slush. I got in first, it seemed easier, but when Jayne was too disoriented to pull the door shut, I had to hop out and do it for her. “Are we going to the exterminator?” she asked me. “We’re going to get you some help.” Jayne didn’t appear to recognize the emergency room of the hospital in which she spent her work week. There was the usual complement of damaged New Yorkers slumped in their plastic chairs, awaiting treatment for knife wounds, drug overdoses, seizures. The woman behind the window asked us to have a seat and told us someone would be with us shortly. “This woman is one of your employees,” I told her. “Just have a seat.” I sat with Jayne for ninety minutes. Why am I doing this? I asked myself. This is a woman who took you to court and would’ve been glad to see you pay a heavy fine. She’d love to see you evicted, for God’s sake. You don’t owe her anything. Why are you sitting with her at four in the morning? Finally an intern in green scrubs called us from the doorway. I took Jayne’s arm and walked her over to where he stood. “This is Miss Harlan,” I said to him. “She’s experiencing a little disorientation.” I went back to the window to clear up the question of Jayne’s insurance. “It’s all right,” said the lady behind the glass. “I found her in our data-base. She’s covered.” She glanced at Jayne’s file. “What’s her problem?” Well, how to define this?    “She’s hallucinating.” “Are you a relative?” “No,” I said, “we live in the same building, that’s all. I don’t really know her.” “Really.” She looked at me for a moment. “She’s lucky to have a friend like you.” I smiled, thinking, You should have seen us in court.

 

 

           

 

 

 

           

           

Bistro Owner’s Death prompts Reminiscence

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He died last Thursday, Robert Treboux, the owner of a classic NY restaurant: It’s called Le Veau d’Or, the Golden Calf -one of Manhattan’s first Bistro’s. It was not a Destination Dining spot, you went there for dependably excellent cooking, when you didn’t need to dress up or be part of a Trendy crowd. Steve Gordon and I went in there one night, and sat down beside a tiny lady in her eighties at the adjoining table.  “Hi,” I said to her, being friendly, “we’re your in-flight companions for this meal.”   “Oh, isn’t this just the most wonderful place?” she replied. “I always have such good food here.” “What did you have tonight?” I inquired. “Let’s see,” she said, “I had the veal ragout, with those wonderful little carrot batons -no, wait -it seems to me maybe I had the sole meuniere with the garlic mashed potatoes.    I was thinking of the kidneys in red wine, but you know, organ meats aren’t good for you -too much cholesterol.” She paused a moment, considering. “Sometimes I have the bass en croute, but I don’t think I had it tonight, because I’m in the mood for a red wine…” The waiter approached: “Alors, Madame, “he said to her, “are you ready to order?”

red wine glass.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Author’s Night in East Hampton

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Big tent -fancy h’ors d’oeuvres from name caterers. Quite a few impressive names: Robert Caro, David Baldacci, Dava Sobel -each had a new book to plug; I had a funny incident with Dan Rattiner, publisher of Dan’s Paper, a Hampton’s fixture for forty years: his book reviewer, Joan Baum, had given me a great pre-publication quote -which was printed on the back of my new thriller, Operation Ruby Slipper -so to say Thanks I showed him my only copy of the novel, which he grabbed and tried to appropriate, under the impression I was giving it to him. I had to yank it back, an embarrassing moment for both of us. I personally knew a couple of the authors -Robt. Klein, with whom I’d worked at the Improvisation, and Dick Cavett, who had featured Judy Garland on his show when I was with her. So we had a brief reminiscence, and my wife Suzanne got this photo. 

John Meyer and Dick Cavett