Letter from Los Angeles
November 2009
© 2009 Joel

This Month’s Winner Is......

Julie Newmar, the 76 year old actress whose tribute we’ve recently attended in Beverly Hills. Still attractive, Newmar has for twenty-four years diligently cared for a son with Down’s Syndrome who is also deaf. Friends testified that from the beginning Newmar took her son’s condition fully in stride and has given him a satisfying life. She also greeted your writer with a kiss on his lips!

Quote of the Month

Forrest Church, the cleric I respect most, has died at the age of sixty-one of the cancer that also took his father, Senator Frank Church. “I don’t come thundering out of the pulpit with quote unquote truth,” said the late Unitarian Universalist minister. “I am involved in a search, and all of my conclusions are tentative.” Amen!

Undies (aka Briefs)

My health insurance story from hell. Decades ago Blue Cross of New York insisted I was “deceased,” and once they temporarily cancelled my policy because the written amount differed slightly from the numerical one on my check......The right wing’s latest shenanigan is characterizing the upcoming US Census as a plot.......A radio talk show host announced, “I trust no politician in the world, Democrat or Republican.” Why do so many of us agree? For the same reason we were aghast to discover mom and pop were imperfect, inconsistent, manipulative, not always reliable, loving or even on our side–in other words, human. But, weren’t we supposed to have grown up?

The Justice Department’s decision to try the 9/11 masterminds in New York City puts Attorney General Eric Holder’s career and rear on the line. Expect a trial and a controversy for the books.

For some unquestionably loyal Americans, investigating the use of torture in terrorist interrogations promises more emotional satisfaction than prosecuting the planners of the 9/11 attacks. They dream of putting Cheney and Bush on trial as an object lesson and for political revenge. I, too, want to see this ugliness exposed, but go explain these priorities to the families and survivors of 9/11–and to me.

Regarding Afghanistan, Pakistan, terrorists and Iraq, I favor coordinated international policing operations and foreign policy maneuvers over military interventions that are ineffective and often play into our enemy’s hands. Though hardly a pacifist, I’m getting sick and tired of the cost and consequences of these aimless, ceaseless wars. Still, as the ever controversial Seymour Hersh points out, the outcome of any policy is uncertain and the call here exceptionally hard.

Congratulations to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer for eschewing euphemisms and calling the Fort Hood assassin a “murderer” on the air........ Finally, left, center or right, we have more in common with our political opponents than we think when we call them dishonorable and 100% wrong.

Gentleman’s Agreement

is the 1947 groundbreaking motion picture adapted by the enormously gifted Moss Hart that brought the topic of anti Semitism and the first use of the word “Jew” to the screen, studio chief Daryl B. Zanuck be praised. The cast includes Gregory Peck and Ann Revere, the latter blacklisted despite her oldest of American names. Guess from whom she was descended.

Despite its occasional preachiness, Hart’s dialogue exemplifies the clarity, elegance and restraint I prize and which I would like to share with you. Ms. Revere, as Peck’s mother, has read her journalist son’s expose of anti Semitism and greets him with, “I wish your father could have read this, Phil. He would have liked it.” Satisfaction and pride conveyed in a handful of simple words.

“You know something, Phil,” she goes on. “I suddenly want to live to be very old–very! I want to be around to see what happens. The world is stirring in very strange ways. Maybe this is the century for it, maybe why it’s so troubled. Other centuries have their driving forces. What will ours be like when men look far back to it one day? Maybe it won’t be the American century, or the Russian century, or the atomic century.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it turned out to be everyone’s century. When people all over the world, free people, found a way to live together. I’d like to be around to see some of that, even a beginning.”

On the subject of anti Semitism, when his closeted Jewish secretary is astonished that Peck, who has been posing as a Jew for his background research, isn’t Jewish at all, Peck asks, “You mean there is some difference between Jews and Christians? Look at me and look at me hard. I’m the same man I was yesterday. Why should you be so astonished? You still can’t believe that someone would give up the glory of being a Christian for just eight weeks. That’s anti Semitism, your feeling that being Christian is better than being Jewish.

Face me now. Look at me, take my hand. Feel it. Same as yours. The only thing that’s different is the word ‘Christian.’”

Few explanations of Jewish pride beat Sam Jaffe’s. “You see my young friends, I have no religion, so I’m not a Jew by religion. I’m a scientist, so I must rely on science to tell me I’m not a Jew by race–since there’s no such thing as a distinct Jewish race there’s no such thing as a Jewish type. I will simply go forth and state I’m not a Jew, though with my face that becomes not an evasion but a new principle!

There must be millions of people who are religious nowadays only in the vaguest sense. I’ve often wondered why the Jewish ones among them still go on calling themselves Jews. Because the world still makes it an advantage not to be one! Thus for many of us it becomes a matter of pride to go on calling ourselves Jews.”

Growing Up Gay III: The Boys in The Biz

Monday, November 16, 1959, a scant fifty years ago, could not have flown by too quickly for the seventeen year old, theater crazy Joel and Lloyd. Waiting outside Manhattan stage doors for autographs had become these best of platonic friends’ Saturday routine. This night of nights we were going to the opening of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music to watch the audience go in while we stayed out.

As the stage door was right there we also got to preview the cast. When “Minky” Marion Marlowe (Elsa) showed up for work fully made up and in an exquisite gown, the taxi driver asked, “Who’s she–Maria Callas?” Through the only door that mattered went the actors, among them the fourteen year old fellow who became both our obsession and the bridge to the next phase of our lives.

Every Saturday that Billy was in the show, I would leave my hated cha cha lessons for the senior prom and hop the D train to 50th and Sixth, there to be met by Lloyd well in advance of the half hour before curtain by which the cast was required to arrive. At the stage entrance on 46th Street between Broadway and 8th, like Ilsa and Rick in Casablanca, we would wait.... and wait....and wait.......

Having been introduced to Ms. Marlowe and young Kathy Dunn (Louisa), with whom we’re still in touch, by a cousin of Joel’s our omnipresence was legitimized to a degree. Over time, cast and crew nodded or stopped to chat, and our mouths dropped open every time Mary Martin pulled up in her chauffeur driven Rolls in a mink coat, scarf and slacks and threw us a kindly word or two. Decades later, we spent forty-five precious minutes with our Mary in San Francisco near end of her life.

Our raison-d’etre became catching sight of Billy, aka “Him.” This accomplished, and heedless of the weather, we would walk around Manhattan, often to 450 East 52nd where both Martin and Greta Garbo lived, until it was time for the cast to come out between shows and for us to perform our signature stunt.

We would follow our hero and whoever was with him–his mom, his guitar teacher, his folksinger aunt who liked us not at all–to wherever they happened to go. An ordinary restaurant or a subway station suddenly became holy ground. Then we’d go home and fill our clueless parents in on every last detail.

For variety one Saturday, knowing Billy’s predictable route, we walked ahead and allowed him to follow us. “Gee whiz!” he grumbled as he overtook us heading down the subway steps, and I knew the time had come for a shift. Subtlety–no more.

In February we saw The Sound of Music for the first of six times, after which I wrote Billy a letter which ended with, “In short, William, we have adopted you.”

The next weekend we introduced ourselves and asked for Billy’s autograph, his address and his home phone, which he voluntarily gave. Before he left the show in June due to a change of voice (and us?), we had snacked with Billy, had long phone conversations with his mom, and even finagled an invitation to a Sunday at their house.

How we managed to keep up our grades, do our chores or even eat with Billy forever on our minds I will never know. Regular phone conversations and weekend walks were devoted to discussing “Him.” We imagined everyone we passed on the street was a Billy fan. The world’s important figures, we fantasized, were focused on our boy. All pretty normal for a 1960 teen age crush–except that we were gay.

After his Sound of Music stint Billy appeared in Mary Martin’s televised Peter Pan. I got wind of their cast party on the Helen Hayes Theater stage and walked in like I belonged. As producer Richard Halliday, Martin’s husband, was about to throw me out, Kathy Dunn and her mom bellowed a “Hi, Joel!” that changed his bewildered mind.

Our final few contacts with Billy, by then Bill, were friendly and mature. Lloyd and I went on to make the acquaintance and friendship of many more Boys in the Biz, including one who played the title role in an early 60’s musical hit. Lesson: never underestimate the power of a well written, utterly sincere note.

Our “handsome, winsome Billy” had been my first infatuation, though not necessarily my first love. Our silly preoccupation was a cover for all the normal teenage things we were denied, like dating, overtly looking at lookers, or crying to our parents of our unrequited loves. But my folks should have named me William, because, you see, where this Willie went there always was a way.

Almost always. The month Billy left The Sound of Music I survived a loveless senior prom, and in the fall of 1960 entered NYU. The following four years I got a good education, discovered the gay scene in Greenwich Village, fell in a love that was returned, and was occasionally treated like a piece of shit.

Next Letter: January, 2010

Archive 2009