Letter From Los Angeles
Quotes of The Issue
Did Clayton Lcokett’s experience (referring to Oklahoma’s botched execution) constitute cruel and unusual punishment? If I’m on the stand, my answer is yes. Could a means of execution be devised that wouldn’t be cruel or unusual? Again, my answer is yes. Does the state have a right to execute one of its citizens? My answer is yes. Should the state exercise this right? My answer is no. – Rev. Galen Guengerich
Remember, nature will be just fine without us. Nature doesn’t need people. People need nature. That is why we can’t save ourselves without saving nature. – Harrison Ford, board member of Conservation International
Never attribute to malice what could be better explained by incompetence. – Cass Sunstein in Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas. Joel note: I dedicate this quote to the deplorable situation at the Dept. of Veterans Affairs.
Internships are affirmative action for the rich. – Charles Murray, conservative social commentator. Joel note: Wait till you read my upcoming piece about actor slaves in L.A.
Bang, Bang You're Dead Quote
Gun owners, regardless of their politics, often regard their weapons with an affection usually reserved for loved ones, God and country. As I view America's obsession with gun ownership as a spiritual disease, I recommend treatment by Dr. Priest, Dr. Minister or Dr. Rabbi. - Joel
Senior(s) Matter(s) Quote
I know that age is a question of spirit, that youth is the best of life no matter how numerous its years.– Virginia Church
Men of The Month Club Quotes
I abducted your girls. There is a market for selling humans. Allah says I should sell. He commands me to sell. – Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram leader
The men of Boko Haram have made a mockery of both manhood and civilization. – Galen Guengerich
I hope every bigot in this country sees what happened to Daniel Sterling. – Kevin Johnson, Mayor of Sacramento, Ca.
Aren’t you a welfare queen in a cowboy hat? – A TV anchor to Clevon Bundy re: the grazing of his cattle on public land
It’s not just enough to fly in first class; I have to know my friends are flying in coach. – Jeremy Frommer, CEO of Carlin Financial, speaking for a prevalent mentality
We mistake a “more perfect union” for a “perfect union.” This, I think, is the major problem of our democracy. – Joel
Jill Is A Four Letter Word
I hereby absolve The New York Times for firing Jill Abramson. Not only was the executive editor guilty of uncommon competence, she thought she should be paid what the Times had paid a man.
Abramson was also allegedly assertive. She hurt some people’s feelings. Please don’t laugh. It seems our feelings are all that it’s about. Some college teachers are being pressured to attach “trigger warnings” to works from the literary cannon, The Great Gatsby and Huckleberry Finn among them, that may “traumatize” some students by referring to less than pleasant topics. (NY Times, May 18, 2014)
But, how do you solve a problem like Jill Abramson? What to do with splendid women who are assertive and want equal pay with men? Perhaps elect one President of the United States.
V.A. Administration? Why Not Banks and Corporations?
Calls from elected (mostly Republican) officials for investigations into V.A. misconduct, and demands for heads to roll, however justified, are seldom directed at those responsible for bringing down the U.S. economy half a dozen years ago. Where are investigations of those who profited mightily by pushing mortgage-backed securities on investors knowing they were contaminated by mortgages we call subprime? Point to the heads that rolled and those who went to prison? Where have been the cries about mismanagement?
Former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner labels such considerations "Old Testament Vengeance." Which Biblical injunction do we apply to our country's record highest (and, at $80 billion a year, most expensive) rate of incarceration, involving 2.2 million Americans frequently guilty of far less heinous crimes?
And what of GM killer cars and coverups, and of the Credit Suisse Bank fraud penalties which will be entirely borne by shareholders, who’ve done nothing wrong? What about our friendly internet providers who read our private e-correspondence on behalf of advertisers? China, meanwhile, has been spying on U.S. companies to gain competitive advantage. I’m shocked, shocked! How long have U.S. businesses been doing same to one another?
Obama lacks a spine? Where is the insistence upon action, and corresponding political organization, from the U.S. public?
Three Rooms At The Top
“There’s nothing wrong with a Chevrolet.” – Dorothy Kripke to her husband Rabbi Myer Kripke, who made more than $25 million dollars by investing with Warren Buffet, when he asked if she’d “like to buy a better car.”
Your place is tiny. – A visitor to our one-bedroom apartment in L.A.
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s support for non-profit enterprises such as PBS and its “Genius” Fellowships are nothing less than legendary. But who was John MacArthur, who were his famous relatives, how did he become a billionaire in a day when billionaires were rare? And what did he have in common with Joel?
John D. MacArthur’s brother was playwright Charles MacArthur (The Front Page, 20th Century), his sister-in-law actress Helen Hayes. John D. made his fortune in insurance and Florida real estate, none of which applies to me. The MacArthurs, whose wealth exceeded the aggregate net worth of everyone I know, lived in a one-bedroom suite in a mediocre hotel they owned in Florida. John’s office was the hotel coffee shop, his desk a table in the corner.
The matriarch of one of New York’s most prominent real estate families- I’ll withhold her name because she was a friend- lived in a one-bedroom rental (admittedly 1500 sq. ft. in one of the fanciest buildings in Manhattan filled with antique furniture and wonderful paintings, including some of Lloyd’s) told us she wouldn’t pay the prices charged by certain shops along Fifth Avenue “even though I own the building.” When she and Lloyd’s mother went out for toast and tea they would split the bill.
And until he married at age forty-one movie star Jimmy Stewart lived in, yes, a one bedroom apartment, awards and all.
Would you agree that we suffer more from puffed up egos than from “tiny” little homes?
My Favorite Movies
I’m grateful to readers who have shared their favorite films with me. A dear friend in San Francisco doesn’t want Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and Touch of Evil (1958) to be forgotten. An astrophysicist whose T-shirt proclaims “I am a rocket scientist” commends Lorenzo’s Oil, The Shop Around The Corner, To Kill A Mockingbird, Groundhog Day, Michael (with John Travolta), La Vita a Belle, Casablanca, The Gold Rush, Modern Times, Treasure of Sierra Madre, Bridge on The River Kwai, The Wizard of Oz and The Best Years of Our Lives.
I’ve limited my list to the Top Twenty, but I’ll be happy to include more of your favorites in the next edition.
The Final Ten
Moonstruck (1987) Cher, Nicholas Cage, Olympia Dukakis, Vincent Gardenia, Danny Aiello, Julie Bovasso, Anita Gillette and Feodor Challapin give the performances of their lives in this brilliantly inventive comedy. John Patrick Shanley, who also wrote Doubt, will go to heaven for his screenplay. Memorable lines include:
You got a love bite on your neck. Your life is going down the toilet! Answer the damn door!
You know, I didn’t really think she was gonna die. I mean, she was coughing her brains out, and still she had to keep singing! (Loretta after seeing La Boheme)
And, best of all: But love doesn’t make things nice- it ruins everything. It breaks your heart. We’re not here to make things perfect. The snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us! We’re here to ruin ourselves and to break our hearts and love the wrong people and die. The storybooks are bullshit. Now I want you to come upstairs with me and get into my bed!
Lloyd, John and I have more than once visited Moonstruck locations in New York City’s Brooklyn Heights. The Castorini house is on the northwest corner of Pineapple Street, one block in from the Promenade. Cammareri’s Bakery, which is not fictional, moved years ago from its location in the movie, but the Henry Street store front and the cellar entrance in Caroll Gardens are still there. This past summer we had the pleasure of attending a Q and A with Olympia Dukakis in Lenox, Ma., where she was appearing in Mother Courage. The eggs dropped in circles cut out of toast she prepared for breakfast in a Moonstruck scene was improvised, the star reports.
Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). Few viewers know this latter day noire produced by and starring Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, Ed Begley and Shelly Winters. The final sequences were shot in Hudson, N.Y., one of our favorite funky spots not far from the Berkshires. The plot is intriguing, the acting marvelous, the characters’ fates richly deserved. John O. Killens was the pseudonym used by blacklisted Abraham Polonsky, whom Belafonte hired to write the movie’s script. In 1996, three years before he died, the Writers Guild restored Polonsky’s real name to the credits.
Mae Barnes, who sang ably in a nightclub sequence, famously botched her only spoken line by substituting “Harry” for Belafonte’s character’s name. That error stayed in director Robert Wise’s original cut but has been corrected for the DVD.
Patterns (1956) Based on Rod Sterling’s teleplay of the same title, Patterns could play out in corporate suites today. The effect of power and disloyalty on the human spirit is at the heart of this page turner of a story. Give Van Hefflin, Everett Sloane, Ed Begley, Beatrice Straight and Elizabeth Wilson a brilliant script and they make it even better.
Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975) Adapted for the screen from his stage comedy by Neil Simon, this movie all but tops my list. A couple’s struggle to survive the Manhattan of the 1970s rings quite true to me. Anne Bancroft (born Anna Maria Italiano) and Jack Lemmon (born Jack Lemmon) are magnificent in their journey from victimhood to triumph. The structurally climactic scene is an encounter between Jack Lemmon’s character and a bit player who soon became a major star. His name? See the movie and find out for yourself.
San Francisco (1938) Go say it, Joel’s corny. But if you can find a better (or more phony) reenactment of the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco (directed by D.W. Griffth in this film), I’ll treat you to another cup of coffee paid for by yourself. The musical was this native New Yorker’s invitation to inhabit “the golden west,” as Jeanette MacDonald belts out in no uncertain terms. Not a minute of this movie is believable- witness the final sequence- but the tribute to my former city never fails to thrill.
Singing In the Rain (1952) I see this classic on TV several times a year and never tire of it, hokey dialogue and all. Gene, Debbie and Donald are unerring, and Jean Hagen’s character, Leila Lamont, reminds me of several men I’ve known. You may know that while shooting the iconic title number, Gene Kelly ran a terrific fever. Between takes he would rip off his costume, head for the studio sidewalk and stretch out in the California sunshine. This movie adds sunshine to our lives.
The Producers (1967) This precursor to the well-known Broadway musical is my nominee for the most outrageous, original movie of all time. Two Broadway grafters devise a plot to peddle multiples of controlling shares of a musical that is guaranteed to flop, thus enabling its producers to skip town with all the money. You’ll see just where they land, but you’ll have had so much fun along the way. Twenty-one cheers for Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder and the cast.
Sudden Fear (1952) Joan Crawford is at her unbelievable best as playwright Myra Hudson in this ingeniously plotted thriller that takes place in early 1950s San Francisco. Crawford, Jack Palance and Gloria Graham keep the pace and anticipation going till the film’s surprise conclusion. We’ve often walked or driven by the Pacific Heights mansion and the Russian Hill apartments where the major scenes play out.
Vertigo (1958) Recently this Hitchcock classic replaced Citizen Kane, a movie I never liked, as the greatest Hollywood product of all time. I wouldn’t care if Vertigo never sold a ticket; like Singing In the Rain, I can’t get enough of it. Kim Novak carries mysteriousness to new highs and Jimmy Stewart does the same for vulnerability. The final twist could only have been conceived of by a genius.
Close runners-up are It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) and Auntie Mame (l958). Next edition I’ll mention two beloved movies you’ll be surprised I do not like.
Gay Pride Month Alphabet Soup
Better LGBT than shifting Lesbian to third place and sounding like a sandwich! Joel
Of the four letters used to designate those who are sexually different, the B, bisexual, is the most misunderstood, say those attracted to members of both genders. In the 1940s researcher Alfred Kinsey, himself bisexual, constructed a scale which measures the fluidity of sexual identity. We all know people who have married, raised families and finally came out as lesbian or gay. Self-identified gay men I’ve known have had sex with women at one time or another in their lives. Heterosexual friends have admitted to having “experimented’ with others of their gender when they were in their teens. (If you’re beginning to experience category confusion, wait till you read about transgender!)
“Bisexuals are really lesbians and gays who haven’t faced up to who they are.” If I had a hair on my head for every time I’ve heard that ignorant, intolerant remark. Since becoming aware of their existence, I have always taken bisexual men and women at their word and cheered them in LGBT Pride parades. My only out of the closet bi friend, a fledgling actor, is proof positive of bisexuality for me.
Reading “Bisexuality Comes Out of the Closet” by Benoit Denizet-Lewis (New York Times Magazine, March 23, 2014), the first mainstream media piece on the subject of which I am aware, I discovered that lesbians and gays are often part of the problem. Initially gay groups resisted adding “the B to their name.” “Bisexual people...are ignored. They’re mocked. Even within the gay community,” asserts L.A. activist Brad Kane, who may have coined the term “biphobia.” “I can’t tell you how many people have told me, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t date a bisexual.’ Or, ‘Bisexuals aren’t real’. There’s this idea, especially among gay men, that guys who say they’re bisexual are really lying, on their way to being gay, or just kind of unserious and unfocused.”
To add to the confusion, “many transgender people also identify as bi.” Interestingly, a Pew Research Survey concluded that “bisexuals are less likely than gays or lesbians to view their sexual orientation as important to their overall identity.” Congratulations Drew Barrymore, Anna Paquin, Megan Fox and Azealia Banks, for coming out as bi, and to Clive Davis, one of the few well-known men to have done so, too. This Kinsey “6” values your inclusion in LGBT, and I believe in your existence.
People generally have a hard time distinguishing between sexual orientation and gender identity. But, as it turns out, gay and lesbian people don’t necessarily have that much in common with transexuals. – A psychotherapist to James Finney Boylan
“Yeah, except for the fact that we get beaten up by the same people.” – James Finney Boylan
I admit to having a kind of gender confusion from the beginning. I’ve thought of women more or less as men in dresses and men as women who wear suits and ties; in other words, social conventions and physical differences aside, we’re essentially the same. Some insist we’re from different planets. – Joel
You know you can’t take me nowhere nice. Three summers ago at the Berkshire Fringe Festival in western Massachusetts, a young man, who had been born into the body of a woman and subsequently became transgender, performed his insightful one-person play. In the Q and A session that followed I referred to “Wherever transgender people live,” to which the actor asked, “And where would that be?” “Trangenderland!,” I replied.
It gets worse. At play’s end the actor removed his shirt and revealed scars on an awfully appealing male chest. Afterwards I congratulated him on sharing his story with us and added, “If I were your age and you didn’t have a girlfriend I’d send you flowers.”
My experience, and no doubt yours, with transgender people is rather limited. I once waved to Chaz (formerly Chastity) Bono in a West Hollywood Pride Parade. In the 1990s, at the Castro Muni station in San Francisco, I encountered what appeared to be a band of men in drag demonstrating on behalf of transexuals, as they were known back then. I extended my support and asked, what was the difference between transvestites and transexuals? A passing acquaintance with our language would have given me my answer, but I was truly ignorant. From the snappy answer you’d think I was Anita Bryant.
A decade earlier, in my doctor’s waiting room, I noticed a young man who appeared to be becoming a young woman. On my next visit months later, I encountered the same individual, again staring at the floor. I asked the doctor if his patient was in transition and got “No comment,” which was my answer.
Prior to this edition’s posting, I finished reading She’s Not There: A Life In Two Genders by Professor Jennifer Finney Boylan, quoted above when she was James. The following day a newsletter reader told me her niece would soon attend the wedding of a transgender person, and that night I enjoyed a reading of a new play, Home Again, written by young Danny Rothschild, in which transgender was the theme. Is someone up there trying to tell me something?
The variety of “trans” people (male, female, neither, both, lesbian, bisexual or gay) is staggering, but defining grades of difference is not my point, and you can do some reading on your own. I want to learn more about the T’s in LGBT. Why shouldn’t I count some among my friends? Transgender people need to understand they’re part of us, but although I’m no fan of segregation, if they require distance at this moment that’s O.K. with me. These folks are making an almost unimaginable transition.
I suspect I’d be making a transition, too, if I had transgender friends. Would I regard them as the gender they were (or seemed to be), or the gender they are now? Would I show affection based on former gender and sexual orientation? Would I extend my hand to a woman who was once a man, or would I wait for her to initiate the shake as I do with those born female? Could I dig a guy who was once a lesbian? Do I, in fact, relate differently to women and to men? I offer these questions for your consideration, too.
We know them when we see them on the subway or the street, especially the women who look like they once were men. Do we know of the misery they’ve endured in the U.S. military, where the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell does not apply to transgender people? Recently, the New York Times reported on the situation and offered hope. Allyson Robinson, who came out as transgender while serving, told a cadet at West Point that she had once studied there. The cadet “clicked his heels and said, ‘Well, then, welcome home ma’am,” which brought Robinson to tears.
Lt. Col. Cate McGregor of the Australian Defense Force, “one of the highest-ranking transgender military officers in the world... offered to resign when she decided to undergo transgender reassignment.” As noted in Quotes of a prior issue, her commanding officer, Gen. Morrison, wouldn’t hear of it. Nor would former Stanford University Provost Condoleza Rice deny a faculty member tenure when he announced he was ready to change gender. Rice signed the appropriate document without hesitation.
A future Rice employer named George W. Bush attended a class reunion during his presidential term. As old friends greeted him, the president said he was excited to meet the one who was transgender. “I want to see ____ as she was meant to be,” he told his aides.
Bush and Rice, among others, have set a standard for us all in this regard. When T’s become as mainstream as their fellow L’s, G’s B’s. and, significantly, develop Jenny Boylan’s capacity for self- depreciating humor, I think they’ll have it made. So will we all.
May I Please Have Your Autograph?
Another Opening, Another Show
In the late 1960s Lloyd and I began attending opening nights on Broadway. At last we were among those who passed the gawking bystanders and gave our tickets at the door. (Famed stage couple Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne were an exception: their faces were their tickets.) We bought tickets at the box office as soon as they came on sale. Their ready availability should have given us a clue.
If you’ve heard of such offerings as A Joyful Noise, Thirteen Daughters, The Play Room or Johnny No Trump, you, too, should hang in my collection. Disasters that they were, we were thrilled to don evening clothes and be on the inside for a change. Let’s take these dogs chronologically, remembering Ingrid Bergman’s definition of happiness including having “a bad memory.” Maybe that’s why I’m about to be so sad.
Thirteen Daughters (1961) starred Don Ameche as a traditional Chinese man living in Hawaii who had, yes, thirteen daughters. If the overture’s being set against a projection of crashing waves, and if the first Act curtain line, “Confucious say... but Confucious no have thirteen daughters!” doesn’t tell you all you need to know about this musical, understand that its twenty-eight performance run was far too long. We went to cheer our friend Bernie West, who was dropped from the cast after we paid for tickets.
The Playroom (1965) New York audiences gave this tale of teenagers who congregated in an attic “playroom” at the Dakota Apartments in Manhattan a thirty-three performance run. The cast, which included Karen Black, Richard Thomas and Bonnie Bedelia, was impressive, though. You’ll learn what I told Richard Thomas when we get to the 1980s, but we had an encounter with Karen Black, now deceased, two years ago in L.A. Following the red carpet opening of a small film Black had done with eighty year old Barbara Bain, with whom we are acquainted, I told the star she still looked beautiful. Black asked our names and invited us to the party across the street, which unfortunately we were unable to attend. During our conversation I called her Karen, which provoked a frown and her addressing me as Mr. plus my surname. Ms. Black was odd, but could she act.
On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (1965) It took Barbra Streisand to give this dreadful Lerner and Lowe musical its final resting place on celluloid, but a Barbara named Harris did her best to keep it strong on Broadway. The immensely talented John Cullum helped the show run two hundred and eighty performances. The opening night audience was glittering, though, and we joined the after-show throng upon the stage. Rosemary Clooney was gorgeous in an evening gown, and two of the Kennedy sisters, Jean and Patricia, looked, well, like Kennedys.
A Joyful Noise (1966) made Clear Day look like South Pacific, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music and Les Miserables combined. All I remember is John Raiit, usually a winner, yowling country western on the stage, tall Tommy Tune in his Broadway debut, and the merciful moment the second act curtain fell. Twenty-eight performances later the world was rid of this joyless noise.
Johnny No Trump (1967) I remember nothing about this one performance gem except the cast. The likes of James Broderick (Matthew’s father), Sada Thompson, Pat Hingle, Don Scardino, and Bernadette Peters (in her Broadway debut) couldn’t possibly go wrong, we figured. They did.
A Patriot For Me (1969) Family and friends of the cast must have been responsible for this one’s lasting forty-nine performances. Legendary actor Dennis King, Maximillian Schell and Salome Jens, whom we see acting and directing periodically in L.A., enacted the historical story of an older man/ younger man gay relationship from somewhere in Europe centuries past. John Osborne, one of twentieth century’s greatest British playwrights, wrote this forgettable play. Lloyd roped his mother into attending her first opening since she was on Broadway in the 1920s. Also in the audience was Angela Lansbury, wearing a powder blue pants suit and carrying a sable stole. That was the only time I envied a woman’s outfit.
Among other famous ladies we saw at 1960s openings was Kitty Carlisle, widow of playwright Moss Hart and of TV quiz show fame. At another opening we spotted the most glamorous older woman we had ever seen. Purple eyed Paulette Goddard, a former Mrs. Charlie Chaplin, wore enough rubies to weigh a lesser mortal down.
Curtain Up: The 1970s
What do the 1970s mean to you? Some answer Vietnam and Watergate, others the breakup of the Beatles and the Supremes. By midnight, January 31, 1979, the country was two presidents past Nixon and one year short of Reagan. Gay liberation was not to be denied, and sexual freedom had changed our mores and prefigured the following decade’s epidemic. Now in our mid-thirties, we had moved three thousand miles west of our most ready source of autographs. But until 1976, Lloyd and I were at our posts in NYC.
Dina Merrill’s was the kind of cool, blonde, upper class WASP persona one seldom encounters in the world of entertainment. Still with us at 90, Merrill may be remembered for her movie and TV appearances (some called her the new Grace Kelly) and a rare stage appearance after which we got her autograph. Merrill, who had been married to actor Cliff Robertson, had not a trace of funkiness about her. Her dress the day she signed for us- how many actresses went to work in dresses then or since?- was not bought off the rack.
Yet for all of Merrill’s majesty, I learned a detail about her family’s ways. Her mother, socially prominent Marjorie Merriweather Post, heiress to the breakfast cereal fortune, lived between Manhattan’s River House and Palm Beach, Fl. A teacher colleague surprised me by revealing she had been Dina Merrill’s social secretary, and that the Post family encouraged employees to call them by their given names. Informality did not extend to signing autographs, though, as ours was prefaced “Most Sincerely Yours.”
Another signing socialite, Gloria Vanderbilt, is better known as Anderson Cooper’s mother today. The poor little rich girl childhood, marriages, personal tragedies, acting and design careers and occasional wisdom of this ninety year old are well documented in print and on the screen.
One early 1970s evening Ms. Vanderbilt attended a celebration of cellist Pablo Casal’s career at Lincoln Center. Lloyd and I were among the onlookers, autograph book in hand. Afterwards we waited for celebrities outside the party at Juilliard School of Music across the street. Casals, elderly and surrounded by family members, was not available for autographs.
Elegantly understated Gloria was intercepted as she headed toward her waiting car. Lloyd’s teacher, Anna E. Meltzer, had painted several portraits of Vanderbilt, who had studied with her, too, one of which was in the subject’s own collection. When we reminded her of Mrs. Meltzer, Gloria beamed and chatted with us gladly. Her signature- Gloria written legibly, surname a V followed by a line- epitomizes the eccentric, charming hand from which it flowed.
Another guest at the Casals affair was leading playwright Lillian Hellman (Little Foxes, The Children’s Hour), whom we had previously seen walking her dog in Cambridge when she was conducting seminars at Harvard. Hellman, who had one hell of a reputation, looked better than her photos and was cheery when she signed Lloyd’s book. Her autograph is among the most treasured in our collection.
Shakespeare maintained that “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.” So I’m no Prince Valiant. As Lloyd, John and I entered Sardis restaurant in New York’s theater district c. 2004, attractive older actress Katherine Helmond was heading toward the door. John announced, “You’re Lillian Hellman!”
That Hellman’s literary talents were enormous is undeniable, but no woman would ever want to think she looked like her. At that moment I was certain I would drop on Vincent Sardi’s lovely carpet. “John,” I stuttered as the actress watched me squirm, “Lillian Hellman was a writer, and she’s dead.” Somehow things got straightened out, and Katherine Helmond has a story to tell her grandchildren.
My theatrical identity error, the grandaddy of them all, will be revealed in a future segment of this series.