Here is another sure shot from the enchanting Eve Babitz. Originally published in the April 1976 issue of Ms. Magazine, it appears here with the author’s permission. (For more on Babitz, ready Lili Anorak’s 2014 Vanity Fairprofile, and pick up Babitz’s two wonderful volumes—Eve’s Hollywood and Slow Days, Fast Company.)
“My Life in a 36DD Bra, Or, The All-American Obsession”
By Eve Babitz
When I was 15 years old, I bought and filled my first 36 DD bra. Since then, no man has ever made a serious pass at me without assuring me in the first hour that he was a leg man. Tits! Why, he hadn’t even noticed!
The tacit understanding was that if I did indeed have those giant knockers one hears so much about in locker rooms and sees flopping across magazine covers, why he simply hadn’t seen what all the fuss was about! Instead he had been quietly pursuing his birdwatching of ankles, knees, and nicely turned calves.
For years I believed these men, which goes to show how dumb one can be when on puts one’s mind to it. And for years I felt sorry for the men who, by some sad twist of fate had gotten stuck with me when they’d have preferred legs. On the other hand, I always knew that if I ever really wanted anything, all I’d have to do was lean forward slightly. Suddenly the world was waiting to hear what it was I wanted, how fast I wanted it, and whether they could get a better one for me wholesale.
Now my legs aren’t that great. They’re okay—with feet on the end of them and toenails at the ends of the feet. They’re not the long legs that you see in Vogue magazine, those grasshopper stems glistening out in Vaseline bronze for “this summer it’s white linen, briefly” copy. (And, as for my ass, well it’s so nondescript that one one’s ever presumed to tell me that was what they were after.)
In fact, I inherited my legs from my mother, and her apple-dumplingly adorable (but short) legs used to cause my father to laugh for what my mother described as “no reason.” Then my mother would blush all the way down to her amazingly taut, and gorgeous breasts. Perhaps that was the real reason my father laughed at her legs.
I inherited my breasts from the women in our family, judging from the old photographs taken in Russia in 1905 and old photographs taken in Louisiana in 1907. Only I was what is euphemistically described as a “Late Bloomer,” but which might better be called The-Heartbreak-Hotel-Death-Row-No-Love-Low-Down-End-of-the-World-Blues. There I was 14 years old in Hollywood with all these incredible girls around me bulging out of these powder-blue sweaters, these salmon-colored sweaters, these pink and charcoal-gray sweaters, these full-fashioned cashmere navy-blue sweaters. And I’m in huge white blouses coming out of my skirts because I’d rather have people think of me a pig or a slob than flat-chested. My best friend, who’d spent hours with me in the seventh grade laughing and talking (she was really a smart funny girl and we had splendid times), suddenly turned up after one summer in Lake Arrowhead with beautiful 35C tits, in pink sweaters—and she never spoke to a girl again. (Yes, she did—to the only girl in school with tits bigger than hers. But that girl wasn’t beautiful the way she was, or smart.)
Then, it happened to me.
It was in the summertime, I was 14. I started my period and then I started “blossoming” in the most phenomenal display of glorious last-minute cavalry rescue. It was, as the English say, gratifying. Now, at least I didn’t have that to worry about any more.
Later I noticed that men would view my tits and become aflame with desire for them, and they would fantasize about having a pair of their own: “God, if I had tits like those I could fuck my way into a million bucks…” I also started getting plenty of, “Shit, she must really be horny.” (They get horny so I’m supposed to.)
Recently, in Ralph’s, my local supermarket where anything often goes, there I am trying to decide on some lettuce—lost in thought, idylls of watercress—when I feel a man behind me and quickly, before I can turn around, he says in a low, authorative purposeful salute: “Big tits.” And he’s gone.
That’s like seeing a movie star. You run up—with all kinds of fantasies beaming through your regular thought process—you run up to Cary Grant and say “Cary Grant!”
What’s he supposed to do? You’ve just said his name to him—a tradition, a heritage, a massive plethora of dreams and meanings. It’s the same with men and my tits. They cannot imagine my doing anything that isn’t somehow connected with how big my tits are. And my tits aren’t even that big. I mean…they’re not Cary Grant. They’re more…John Garfield or Dean Martin. You know, there’s that shock of recognition but no the fainting spell Cary Grant would inspire.
The other night I went out on the Last-Blind-Date-I-Shall-Ever-Go-Out-On-Ever-Again. The other night this friend, who keeps saying how smart and funny and wonderful she thinks I am, calls me and says she’s going to fix me up with this smart, funny wonderful ex-lover of hers. I’ll just love him, she says. So I get dressed in these clothes that I wear when I don’t know what I’m about to encounter—clothes vaguely reminiscent of those awful white blouses I wore in junior high to hide whatever was there. This tall, unfunny, unwonderful, stupid man picks me up (I could tell at once he was stupid because he was stupid), and on our way into this restaurant he brushes against my breasts and says, “Why, shit, Jeannie was right! You do have gigantic tits!” Home, James.
He’d have done much better if he insisted he was a leg man and you can see why, all these years, those other guys did.
When a man who I don’t love and am not sexually engrossed in talks about my tits, there’s something that makes me want to pour cold water into his lap and leave a loose cartoon of ice cream on his car seat overnight. Legs are much less tiresome to listen to under those circumstances. However, if I’m beginning to be madly whipped into a frenzy of lust, a polite mention that I have beautiful breasts is a nice touch. And of course, after I’ve known the guy awhile and he’s proved himself funny, smart, an ace lover, and a man of distinction, then he can say any fucking thing he pleases. And only then have I found out what men were really thinking the first time when they poured me a glass of cool white wine and nonchalantly admitted their preference for legs.
“I remember one time,” my gorgeous friend David old me after I told him I was going to write this piece, “I met this girl, Lucy Sander” [I knew her—we’d shared a dressing room in Hollywood High together once and even then I thought it was hilarious because I was a 36DD and she was a 36DD and we’d get our bras mixed up—a truly uncommon coincidence] “and I was like 19 and was 16 and there they just were, you know!…” and his voice softened in memories of things lust, “and I ran home, I mean ran, I pushed people off the sidewalk so I could get home in time to jerk off thinking about her tits…” He started laughing, “And then I asked her out and I was going to kiss her for the first time and she said something about being careful because she was swollen because of her period and I said, ‘Swollen? Where?’ And then I went into a whole thing about how now that she mentioned it I did notice she was perhaps larger than other girls but since I was a leg man myself…”
I love revelations.
So for all those years when I was having to make do with men who were a trifle triste because they were leg men and they had to accustom themselves to all this extra baggage…And then how they pounced when the coast became clear, and those revelations afterward that from the moment I’d come into some party they couldn’t they their eyes off my…But of course they had to. Because if they hadn’t, I would have thought they were pigs and brutes and you know how women are about pigs and brutes. We like them to clean up their routine in polite society at least. We like to at least know they could maintain an air of respectability if they had to.
There are other little tricky situations that arise from big tits. Sometimes other women, a lot of the time when they’re drunk, can’t keep their eyes off them. They think you’re doing it on purpose. It’s like big guys in bars getting picked on for fights. But that’s okay, I don’t really mind about women. Deep down they know I know they can’t help it and eventually they turn their venom on their escorts fro liking women with big tits and leave me out of it.
There’s also all this having to bundle up. Whenever I go into the street, I have to cover myself with clothes that flow and drape. I cannot wear a tight anything on the street if I hope to have a moment’s peace. Suppose, for example, you wanted to go for a nice walk and look at the sunset and breathe in the air at eventide, nice idea, right? No, no, no. Not if you’ve got big tits and you’re not bundled up (Cary Grant can’t do it either).
Putting on disguises is one of my daily tasks. “Now what shall I wear today that’ll billow around?” I say to myself, squinting into my closet. If I’m going to see friends and I have to on the street first, I usually have to wear a coat (“Eve, a coat? It’s eighty degrees out there!”) and then take it off (sweating) upon arrival. If they’re really true friends who won’t make remarks about my tits when they get drunk enough, and if I can really be sure they aren’t going to turn on me for being Cary Grant, then I sometimes really get luscious and I try to dress like Claudia Cardinale in Caratouche or try in some other way to otherwise become a visual social asset to the proceedings.
If I’m with a man I want to entice, then I have a special bunch of immoral things I wear for in-house functions, but only if the guy is six foot seven, do I presume to wear them at large.
There is one other problem—not a problem but a little matter of concern—about having big tits, and that is that a lot of sensitive, smart men are terrified because they’re consumed by lust and they haven’t learned the old “leg man” line. Also they have this nervous feeling that anyone with tits like that must be vulgar. Or insensitive. There I sit, reading my Proust and minding my p’s and q’s and keeping up with current oddities—no slouch more or less—and I see them shrink from my gaze as they I were a tramp.
Having spent the day defending myself from the slings and arrows of outrageous truck drivers and busboys I am sometimes ill-equipped to suddenly assume an air of sensitive melancholy—and a couple of years ago I gave it up for a bad show. I mean, to be given the feeling that one is inelegant after one has just found the strategy for getting form point A to point B without having to walk past a little group of 14-year-old boys…It’s too hard and life is too short, and I want to be happy and laugh…
Occasionally, I sit in a restaurant and I watch as a lithe, long-limbed creature with daises embroidered on a sheer organdy blouse (beneath which she does not now, nor has she ever had to wear a bra) enters. I see the face of the man who awaits her; it has a particularly familiar look and until lately, I couldn’t place it. He kisses her, she sits down, and he reaches over to pour her some cool white wine. And then, I’ll be you anything, he says, “You know, even though we just met, I think I must tell you right off…I’m a tit man.”
Joseph Cornell is one of my favorite artists and Charles Simic is one of my favorite writers so you can imagine how thrilled I am to present a few excerpts from Simic’s charming—and irresistible—volume,Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell (NY Review of Books). Reprinted with the author’s permission, and illustrated with photographs by fellow Manhattan-wanderer, Bags, along with a few of my own pictures and collages. Enjoy—Alex Belth]
I have a dream in which Joseph Cornell and I pass each other on the street. This is not beyond the realm of possibility. I walked the same New York neighborhoods that he did between 1958 and 1970. I was either working at lowly office jobs, or I was out of work spending my days in the Public Library on Forty-second Street which Cornell frequented himself. I don’t remember when it was that I first saw his shadow boxes. When I was young, I was interested in surrealism, so it’s likely that I came across his name and the reproduction of his art that way. Cornell made me feel that I should do something like that myself as a poet, but for a long time I continued to admire him without knowing much about him. Only after his death did he become an obsession with me. Of course, much had already been written about him, and most of it was excellent. Cornell’s originality and modesty disarm the critics and make them sympathetic and unusually perceptive. When it comes to his art, our eyes and imagination are the best guides. In writing the pieces for this book, I hoped to emulate his way of working and come to understand him that way. It is worth pointing out that Cornell worked in the absence of any aesthetic theory and previous notion of beauty. He shuffled a few inconsequential found objects inside his boxes until together they composed an image that pleased him with no clue as to what that image will turn out to be in the end. I had hoped to do the same.
THE MAN ON THE DUMP
He looked the way I imagine Melville’s Bartleby to have looked the day he gave up his work to stare at the blank wall outside the office window.
There are always such men in cities. Solitary wanderers in long-outmoded overcoats, they sit in modest restaurants and side-street cafeterias eating a soft piece of cake. They are deadly pale, have tired eyes, and their lapels are covered with crumbs. Once they were something else, now they work as office messengers. With a large yellow envelope under one arm, they climb the stairs to the tenth floor when the elevator is out of order. They keep their hands in their pockets even in summertime. Any one of them could be Cornell.
He was a descendant of an old New York Dutch family that had grown impoverished after his father’s early death. He lived with his mother and invalid brother in a small frame house on Utopia Parkway in Queens and roamed the streets of Manhattan in seeming idleness. A devout Christian Scientist, he was a recluse and an eccentric who admired the writings of French Romantic and Symbolist poets. His great hero was Gérard de Nerval, famous for promenading the streets of Paris with a live lobster on a leash.
THE ROMANTIC MOVEMENT
Poe has a story called “The Man of the Crowd” in which a recently discharged hospital patient sits in a coffee shop in London, enjoying his freedom, and watching the evening crowd, when he notices a decrepit old man of unusual appearance and behavior whom he decides to follow. The man at first appears to be hurrying with a purpose. He crosses and recrosses the city until the aimlessness of his walking eventually becomes obvious to his pursuer. He walks all night through the now-deserted streets, and is still walking as the day breaks. His pursuer follows him all of the next day and abandons him only as the shades of the second evening come on. Before he does, he confronts the stranger, looks him steadfastly in the eye, but the stranger does not acknowledge him and resumes his walk.
Poe’s is one of the great odes to the mystery of the city. Who among us was not once that pursuer or that stranger? Cornell followed shop girls, waitresses, young students “who had a look of innocence.” I myself remember a tall man of uncommon handsomeness who walked on Madison Avenue with eyes tightly closed as if he were listening to music. He bumped into people, but since he was well dressed, they didn’t seem to mind.
“How wild a history,” says Poe’s narrator, “is written within that bosom.” On a busy street one quickly becomes a voyeur. An air of danger, eroticism, and crushing solitude play hide-and-seek in the crowd. The indeterminate, the unforeseeable, the ethereal, and the fleeting rule there. The city is the place where the most unlikely opposites come together, the place where our separate intuitions momentarily link up. The myth of Theseus, the Minotaur, Ariadne, and her thread continue here. The city is a labyrinth of analogies, the Symbolist forest of correspondences.
Like a comic-book Spider-Man, the solitary voyeur rides the web of occult forces.
WHERE CHANCE MEETS NECESSITY
Somewhere in the city of New York there are four or five still-unknown objects that belong together. Once together they’ll make a work of art. That’s Cornell’s premise, his metaphysics, and his religion, which I wish to understand.
He sets out from his home on Utopia Parkway without knowing what he is looking for or what he will find. Today it could be something as ordinary and interesting as an old thimble. Years may pass before it has company. In the meantime, Cornell walks and looks. The city has an infinite number of interesting objects in an infinite number of unlikely places.
I WENT TO THE GYPSY
What Cornell sought in his walks in the city, the fortune-tellers already practiced in their parlors. Faces bent over cards, coffee dregs, crystals; divination by contemplation of surfaces which stimulate inner visions and poetic faculties.
De Chirico says: “One can deduce and conclude that every object has two aspects: one current one, which we see nearly always and which is seen by men in general; and the other, which is spectral and metaphysical and seen only by rare individuals in moments of clairvoyance…”
He’s right. Here comes the bruja, dressed in black, her lips and fingernails painted blood-red. She saw into the murderer’s lovesick heart, and now it’s your turn, mister.
CHESSBOARD OF THE SOUL
Around the boxes I can still hear Cornell mumble to himself. In the basement of the quiet house on Utopia Parkway he’s passing the hours by changing the positions of a few items, setting them in new positions relative to one another in a box. At times the move is no more than a tenth of an inch. At other times, he picks the object, as one would a chess figure, and remains long motionless, lost in complicated deliberation.
Many of the boxes make me think of those chess problems in which no more than six to seven figures are left on the board. The caption says: “White mates in two moves,” but the solution escapes the closest scrutiny. As anyone who attempts to solve these problems knows, the first move is the key, and it’s bound to be an unlikely appearing move.
I have often cut a chess problem from a newspaper and taped it to the wall by my bed so that I may think about it first thing in the morning and before turning off the lights at night. I have especially been attracted to problems with minimum numbers of figures, the ones that resemble the ending of some long, complicated, and evenly fought game. It’s the subtlety of two minds scheming that one aims to recover.
At times, it may take months to reach the solution, and in a few instances I was never able to solve the problem. The board and its figures remained as mysterious as ever. Unless there was an error in instructions or position, or a misprint, there was no way in hell the white could mate in two moves. And yet…
At some point my need for a solution was replaced by the poetry of my continuous failure. The white queen remained where it was on the black square, and so did the other figures in the original places, eternally, whenever I closed my eyes.
WHAT MOZART SAW ON MULBERRY STREET
If you love watching movies from the middle on, Cornell is your director. It’s those first moments of some already-started, unknown movie with its totally mysterious images and snatches of dialogue before the setting and even the vaguest hint of a plot became apparent that he captures.
Cornell spliced images and sections from preexisting Hollywood films he found in junk stores. He made cinema collages guided only by the poetry of images. Everything in them has to do with ellipses. Actors speak but we don’t know to whom. Scenes are interrupted. What one remembers are images.
He also made a movie from the point of view of a bust of Mozart in a store window. Here, too, chance is employed. People pass on the street and some of them stop to look in the window. Marcel Duchamp and John Cage use chance operation to get rid of the subjectivity of the artist. For Cornell it’s the opposite. To submit to chance is to reveal the self and its obsessions. In that sense Cornell is not a dadaist or a surrealist. He believes in charms and good luck.
THE GAZE WE KNEW AS A CHILD
“People who look for symbolic meaning fail to grasp the inherent poetry and mystery of the images,” writes René Magritte, and I could not agree more. Nevertheless, this requires some clarification. There are really three kinds of images. First, there are those seen with eyes open in the manner of realists in both art and literature. Then there are images we see with eyes closed. Romantic poets, surrealists, expressionists, and everyday dreamers know them. The images Cornell has in his boxes are, however, of the third kind. They partake of both dream and reality, and of something else that doesn’t have a name. They tempt the viewer in two opposite directions. One is to look and admire the elegance and other visual properties of the composition, and the other is to make up stories about what one sees. In Cornell’s art, the eye and the tongue are at cross purposes. Neither one by itself is sufficient. It’s that mingling of the two that makes up the third image.
It’s raining on Utopia Parkway. The invalid brother is playing with his toy trains. Cornell is reading the sermons of John Donne, and the box of the Hôtel Beau-Séjour is baking in the oven like one of his mother’s pies.
In order to make them appear aged, Cornell would give his boxes eighteen to twenty coats of paint, varnish them, polish them, and leave them in the sun and rain. He also baked them to make them crack and look old.
Forgers of antiquities, lovers of times past, employ the same method.
It ought to be clear that Cornell is a religious artist. Vision is his subject. He makes holy icons. He proves that one needs to believe in angels and demons even in a modern world in order to make sense of it.
The disorder of the city is sacred. All things are interrelated. As above, so below. We are fragments of an unutterable whole. Meaning is always in search of itself. Unsuspected revelations await us around the next corner.
The blind preacher and his old dog are crossing the street against the oncoming traffic of honking cabs and trucks. He carries his guitar in a beat-up case taped with white tape so it looks like it’s bandaged.
The final episode The Night Of, HBO’s engrossing eight-part series co-created by Richard Price, airs this Sunday and if you have not been watching, have a little binge and catch up—you’ll dig it. Price is a distinguished novelist and screenwriter—I love the talk in movies like The Color of Money and Sea of Love—and one of my favorite Scorsese flicks, Life Lessons. Like many of us—thank you, P. Kael—he lost it at the movies. Back in December 1982, American Film magazine published Price’s charming essay about some of his favorite movie theater memories, and, with the author’s permission, we’re happy to now share it with you. Dive in, this will make you happy.—Alex Belth
“Gorgo, Warhol, Rocky, and Me”
By Richard Price
Over the marquee of a beat-up two-dollar movie house in Times Square, there’s an ancient faded sign: “Get More Out of Life—See a Movie.” The visual contrast between that sentiment and the desperate seediness surrounding it would yield, in its bitter irony, a photograph worthy of Walker Evans.
Nonetheless, the sign gives solid advice. Movies have always been a source of self-realization in my life; from Jerry Lewis to James Dean to Woody Allen, the shock of recognition has always signaled the Big Change for me.
But there’s another source of epiphany in a movie house, one much more profound and subtle than the screen—and that’s the audience. And I’ve always felt that the action in the seats was the greater teacher.
Rebel Without a Cause was pure bush-league in the life-lessons department compared with the ever popular torture of trying to worm a finger inside a steel-trap bra while keeping a two-hour, eyes-ahead poker face, or compared with the frantic in-crowd scrambling for who-sits-next-to-whom seating among a group of thirteen-year-old boys. Deep Throat was a rambling, flatulent dirty joke compared with the awesome sexuality of first tongue kiss while watching Topkapi. Psycho was so much “Mister Rogers” compared with the torture of sitting in front of six greaser cretins, who, after ordering you not to turn around, amused themselves through Viva La Vegas by treating your skull to sporadic slaps and buttered popcorn.
Everything—sex, power, kindness, cruelty, love lost and found—was acted out in the dark, no “The End,” and nothing could be exorcised by chanting, “It’s only a movie.”
The following memories are selected from my personal Book of Revelations.
From the age of five to eleven, the highlight of my week was spending Saturdays with my grandmother, who lived in what is now known as the South Bronx. Our itinerary never varied: a double monster-movie matinee at one of the local theaters, dinner at a deli, and then back to her place for an evening of pro wrestling, roller derby, and “Zackerly’s Shock Theater” on the ole Emerson. But the crème de Ia crème was the monster-movie outing. She’d load up a shopping bag with sandwiches, fruit, and a few thermoses, and we’d head on out—nothing could be finer.
But it all began to fall apart two weeks before my twelfth birthday, when we went to see Gorgo.
Seated in the theater, surrounded by kids howling and yowling for the picture to start, my grandmother muttered her usual, “Animals,” a few times, jerking her head in annoyance to all points of the compass. One kid ten rows down from us got dragged out even before the lights dimmed. An eleven-year-old with a cigarette, dragged up the aisle by the tall, bony, gray-haired, tomahawk-faced matron in a white uniform like that of a school nurse, her eyes razors of determination, the kid trying desperately to be cool, trying to drag on his cigarette as he was hustled by his neck and armpit out of the theater, his friends laughing and whooing in a wolf chorus: “Efram, man, she too bad for you.” “Bite her, man.”
My grandmother squinted in admiration at the matron. “She’s a tough one.”
The kids were my age, but in every way it seemed like no contest; they were bigger, badder, louder, definitely not College Bound. As the matron came back down the aisle slightly huffing, my grandmother nodded to her. The matron smiled back a “How are you, dear,” then continued down to Efram’s friends brandishing her flashlight like a nightstick: “An’ if I see anybody else light up a cigarette, ya’s gonna get the same treatment.” That got a chorus of “whoos” as she tromped up the aisle, her face in an “I ain’t kiddin’” expression.
“Watch ’em,” my grandmother murmured. “I see two packs… these little bastards… just let ’em light up… they don’t think anybody’s watchin’.”
Halfway through Gorgo, while a mother dinosaur destroyed London in a search for her baby, one kid bent over the crotch of his friend for a light and both of us caught the brief orange flare reflected off the seat back in front of him.
She grabbed my arm. “We got him!”
The kid sat back in a low slouch, casually checking out his sides, the cigarette cupped inside his palm, lit end between his legs.
“Go get the matron!” my grandmother said, her eyes widening. I hesitated, not wanting to rat on another kid and not wanting to get beaten up. “Go, go! He’s almost finished!”
The matron was lounging against an archway, arms folded across her waist, eyes scanning the crowd. “Excuse me, miss? My grandmother wants to talk to you.”
She tromped down to our seats and bent over my grandmother, who didn’t say a word, just raised her eyebrows, made a slight motion with her head in the direction of that row of kids, and pressed two fingers against her lips as if she were dragging on a butt.
I saw all this from where the matron had been standing. I knew there was a chance that she would hustle this kid past me, that the kid would get a good look at me, and that maybe my ass was grass, but I didn’t really feel that worried. What I felt, more than fear was deep sorrow. For the first time in six years of movie outings with my grandmother, I found myself wishing I was one of her “animals,” wishing that I was sitting right in the middle of those kids, cupping a passed butt, taking a drag, and passing it on.
Much to my relief, the matron decided to lay off. When I sat back down, my grandmother was sitting hand to mouth, eyes wide, staring down at those kids. “Oh, honey, what a world,” she whisper-moaned, shaking her head behind her fist. “What a world…”
For the next several hours, I ate, she drank black coffee, too aggravated to eat, and we watched the kids. Every time one would come up the aisle to go to the john or get candy we would stare at him until our heads were almost completely turned around. We would do the same when he came back down. And we watched the movie. It struck me that my grandmother was a very lonely person and that in the very near future she would get a lot more lonely.
When we got out, it was twilight. The kids streamed around us, my grandmother’s tottering, arthritic bulk like a rock splitting rapids. One kid locked eyes with her, caught her death-ray sneer, and nudged his friend. My heart stopped. I envisioned my grandmother and me back to back fighting them off, but nothing happened, and I wound up watching them bop down the street, counting how many of them wore Keds and how many Converse.
THE DAY MARS INVADED EARTH
When we were all thirteen years old, my friends and I would go see any film anywhere at any time. We didn’t go to watch, we went to hunt. We knew that in every movie crowd there was at least one eighth-grade girl just sitting there waiting to put out. We’d go in, take a row, hiss, elbow each other, and snigger for two hours, then head on home calling each other faggots.
Everybody was pretty happy with the arrangement, but during Christmas break, early 1963, things were thrown into chaos at a neighborhood kiddie matinee of The Day Mars Invaded Earth.
Surrounded by seven-year-olds, we scoured the darkness, muttered variations on “I was up for it, too, man” and settled in for a few hours of wisecracks. At some point during the first hour of the movie, I was lurching down the aisle on my way back from a popcorn run when I heard someone hissing out my name. It was my main man, Howie, who, obviously out of his mind, was sitting in between two teenage girls. Giving me a look like he was sinking in quicksand, he said, “Hey, yo’, this is Jackie; she thinks you’re cute.”
Too freaked to think up an out for myself, I took the offered seat and concentrated on the movie. I had never wanted to be sitting next to a guy so badly as I did at that moment. The other girl was Jackie’s sister, Carol. Like the sluts they obviously were, they both had plucked eyebrows and more eye makeup than Cleopatra.
After a debonair half-hour pause to show her I was no beggar, I draped my hand along the back of Jackie’s seat and caressed Howie’s similarly outstretched arm. Howie responded by diddling the hollow of my elbow. I was in stud heaven for fifteen minutes before I glanced down and saw that both of Jackie’s hands were in her lap. Whipping my arm away from Howie’s like it was touching something with teeth, I sat reeling in retroactive revulsion, then made my move. I scored waist right off the bat. After what seemed like days later I made it up to the edge of her bra. Suddenly she hunched over and drawled out, “Hey Carol! I got another rib counter here.”
Carol had a look on her face as though she was at the end of a line at the Motor Vehicles Bureau; Howie was sitting there with his hands tucked in his armpits.
Turning back to me, Jackie grabbed my hand and planted it on her small left breast. My forehead tingled like a tuning fork. Now what? My hand lay on top of her sweater inert and splayed like a starfish until Jackie got up, gave her sister the high sign, announced a trip to the bathroom, took her umbrella and shoulder bag, and vanished forever.
When we all got outside, Howie bolted for a cab and rode alone the three blocks back to his house.
I walked home like Moses returning from a conversation with the Burning Bush. Oblivious to the frantic six-man press conference that circled me from the theater to my building, I was obsessed with trying to keep my wrist curled and my fingers spread in “the exact shape of Jackie’s breast. It had taken thirteen years for me to score, and, fearing that it would be another thirteen before I saw some action again, I felt that I had to preserve the mold of my conquest to tide me over the years.
But by the time I got inside my apartment, my hand was killing me. I began to panic. My first thought was to trace it on paper. Photograph it. Plaster of Paris. Luckily it was too late by the time I noticed the baby shoes on top of the family television. Before I realized that I could have bronzed it, my cramped hand had become unbearable and I had shaken it out.
THE T.A.M.I. SHOW
The T.A.M.I. Show was a rock concert filmed in 1964, at the dawn of the British invasion and the California sound. It was also the epitome of the racially integrated rock show, an amazing mix of three worlds—White America, Black America, and Liverpool—your hosts, Jan and Dean.
I saw The T.A.M.I. Show with three friends and our girls, all of us fifteen years old. My girl friend didn’t really love me, but in our crowd, if you weren’t part of a match, you might as well have a bell around your neck, and I was the only guy available. Unfortunately for me, I loved her madly.
All through Lesley Gore, the Supremes, Gerry and the Pacemakers, I sat there in the Saturday-matinee darkness totally focused on Mary’s hand, which lay in mine like it was carved from wax. Everybody around me was screaming and bouncing, and it pissed me off. I hated surfing music. I hated the British sound. And although I loved Motown, not even the synchronized svelteness of the Miracles could pull me away from agonizing over the implications of Mannequin Hand.
But suddenly, without warning, James Brown came flying across the screen, shrieking like he was on fire, and, without thinking, I found myself standing in a half crouch, pulling Mary’s hand over her head. Backed up by the Famous Flames, he seemed like the Devil in a doo, screeching and doing splits in celebration of his own bad-ass status. I’d never seen such a ferocious refusal to compromise, to “make nice,” and for twenty minutes he turned the world into something best seen from the portal of a Sherman tank.
The crowd was enjoying his set, but with a slight pall of wariness and detachment. There were no teen screams for “Please, Please, Please” or “Night Train” as there had been for “It’s My Party” or “Ferry Cross the Mersey.” James Brown was definitely not cute; no fantasy escort for a sweet sixteen. I felt as if all through the movie I had been at odds with the crowd and now we had just passed each other again. My girl friend stared at the screen like she was being forced to watch a massacre. She pulled her hand out of mine and crossed her arms in front of her chest. To hell with her.
At fifteen I had already established myself around school as a poet, but I was more into the wrapping than the gift. I wrote poems because it made my run-of-the-mill adolescent mooniness seem romantic and intriguing, elevated me from loner to lone wolf. Persona was everything because, allegedly, girls are suckers for uniforms.
But James Brown was a true outlaw artist, and sitting there watching him crooning and yowling, tearing up the boards with the smoking intensity of a flamenco dancer, face twisting and writhing into a catalog of passions, I found myself exhilarated by the making of art rather than the posing of the artist.
Walking out of the theater at two-thirty in the afternoon, I was astonished that it was still daylight.
I still wanted “poet” to shelter me from Mary’s coolness, still wanted “artiste” to rationalize my lovesickness as part of the forging process, but as I walked home, filled with the sights and sounds of James Brown, for the first time in my life I found myself wondering if I had any talent.
1970—Being in Love Means Never Having to Sit Through Andy Warhol
During the late sixties and early seventies, my college years, movies were divided into two categories: “Amerikan propaganda” and “surreal.” Any movie where the cowboys, the cavalry, or the GIs won the battle was Fascist and sinister. Same for anything heartwarming or corny—all “part of the problem.” Surreal became synonymous with Good: Fantasia,Betty Boop cartoons, Medium Cool, Easy Rider, Zabriskie Point, the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Bergman, Putney Swope, Mickey One,anything low-budget or starring mainly unknowns or shot in black and white—all surreal, all good.
I saw all the required movies, in part because I was enjoying my new role as a hippie aesthete, but also because I was a devout believer in “no pain, no gain”—Sugar Pops tasted better, but oatmeal made you strong. Outside of the hip comedies, most of what I found myself buying tickets for seemed to me boring, pompous, or just plain incoherent. In my heart of hearts I was still a Sands of Iwo Jima junkie, but I restrained myself for the good of the Movement.
When I was a junior, I had a first date with a coed whom I didn’t know if I really liked or not. Date meant movie. Our choices were The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Nazi Sex Crimes in Third Reich Love Camp Number Seven, Slaves,and Andy Warhol’s Trash.
Five minutes into Trash I felt myself going into a coma. In the first forty-five minutes I left to go to the bathroom three times. I would have died before admitting I was stupefied with boredom. I wouldn’t even turn to my date for fear that she would see my eyes rolling up into my head. An hour into the flick she touched my arm and asked me what time The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly started. I was embarrassed to know, but when I told her she looked at her watch and said, “That’s in five minutes; if we run we can make it.”
I said, “This is starting to mesh,” nodding toward the screen, amazed at my own cowardice.
She sighed and whispered in my ear. “Last year I was handing out flyers for a student-worker alliance rally at some construction site in New York. Some Puerto Rican guy in a hard hat—we’re talking prime-target minority labor here—he took the flyer, read it, and gave it back to me. He said, ‘If you don’t like it here, go back to Great Neck.’ Now we have only three minutes to make it.”
Two blocks into our dead run for the Strand I was in love.
1976—Just One of the Boys
In 1976 I had my own apartment. Being a self-supporting writer and having just finished a novel, I found myself with too much free time on my hands. It was a restless, boring time for me, and I filled in a number of empty afternoons by going alone to the movies. These solo excursions didn’t bother me, because I didn’t really consider myself a lonely person. I rarely had dinner alone.
But I always hated seeing other people sitting in the dark by themselves. Anybody, young or old, three-piece suits or babushkas. I could account for my own circumstances, but I always saw the others as tragic loners, destitute hearts doomed to a life of Chock Full O’Nuts counters.
On one Tuesday morning a few months into my “fallow” period, I woke up with a bad case of the Gregor Samsas. I felt lethargic and aimless; the refrigerator was stocked, the rugs vacuumed, the roaches in temporary retreat. I had nothing to do and the day yawned open ahead of me like a stretch of Kansas highway. A movie day if there ever was one.
I went downtown to see what all the hoopla was about with Rocky. I was supposed to go to the movies that evening with a girl friend, but I knew she’d rather see Scenes From a Marriage minus the subtitles than submit to two hours of Meatball Ascending.
From the moment I sat down in the half-empty theater I knew I was in trouble. I found myself surrounded by lone men, and from the screen credits on, my attention kept shifting from Rocky to the 3-D sad sacks in the seats, all of whom seemed to be perfectly self-contained and enjoying the show. Nonetheless my heart went out to them.
Whenever I concentrated on the movie, I found myself getting hot eyes and golf-ball throat at the most embarrassingly inane moments: Rocky not having the heart to break a longshoreman’s thumbs, Rocky doing push-ups, Adrian slaving over kitty litter in the pet store. It wasn’t Rocky,it was all those guys around me, kicking my ass with their painful solitude.
And then the whole thing blew up in my face.
During the final round of the climactic fight, when Rocky and Apollo Creed were pounding each other to pizza, the Bill Conti score pulsing with Rocky’s superhuman efforts, the audience lost control and people started yelling and cheering for the Italian Stallion, egging him on; a few were on their feet ducking and weaving and throwing punches at the screen. Suddenly, the guy to my left, an enormously fat black man nursing a tub of popcorn, belted out, “For God’s sake, Rocky, you can do it,” his cheeks slick with tears. My first reaction was shock that he wasn’t rooting for the black fighter.
Embarrassed by his outburst, the fat man looked around to see if anybody was laughing at him. When he turned in my direction, I was waiting for him with a commiserating basset-hound face, but when our eyes met, the contact was more than I had bargained for. Neither of us could turn away. We sat there, entranced with each other’s grief, pop-eyed, our mouths working wordlessly like beached fish; then we simultaneously burst out crying. Afraid that he would offer me some popcorn, I bolted from the theater.
Two weeks later, I moved into a huge apartment, splitting the rent with three roommates.
1979—What Ralph Ellison Meant by “Invisible Man”
THE ONION FIELD
AII my life I’ve gone to movies in the Times Square area. The crowds are ethnic mix ’n’ match, the fare usually critical crap, but the action is nonstop. If the movie is going over, the house is pure empathic Sensurround; if it’s a dud, everybody just turns to each other for their five dollars’ worth. People bring in grass, radios, babies, and portable televisions. There are always a half-dozen flakes arguing with the screen and another bunch who have no idea where they are. For years I saw that scene as a major goof; I was proud of my ability to feel at ease in any movie crowd in New York, from the Gold Coast theaters near Bloomingdale’s to the two-dollar roach sanctuaries on Forty-second Street. Mister Manhattan..
One evening I went down to Times Square to see The Onion Field. It was a Friday night and the house was packed. I could have caught the movie in the Village or on the Upper West Side, but I wasn’t in the mood to sit there with people who might applaud cinematography credits. I wanted audience juice.
At first the crowd started out with the usual woofing and cackling, goofing on everything from John Savage’s glasses to Ted Danson’s bagpipes, but as the focus shifted to the relationship between the two cop killers, white James Woods and black Franklyn Seales, the party mood began to fade. Woods played a cool and domineering psychopathic con man, Seales a quivering, spineless petty thief, and every scene between them hammered home their master-slave relationship.
At first, the mainly black and Puerto Rican crowd responded with sullen silence, but after a particularly degrading exchange, someone lost control and yelled out, “Stand up for yourself, chump!” and the audience erupted, cursing out Seales. A spray of popcorn landed on the screen, but nobody laughed. No one cursed out Woods, like I expected. No one cared about the dead cop or John Savage’s slow breakdown. I was amazed at the fury around me, but I didn’t feel it in myself. I felt like a social scientist, an outsider. I realized I was surrounded by people who had no addresses, no childhoods, and no names for me. I was slumming. Always had been.
When the two killers came to trial, Seales finally rebelled. He started cursing out Woods—even tried to physically assault him, and the crowd cheered with humorless encouragement.
But the rebellion was short-lived. Once Seales got to jail, his lawyer informed him that unless he and Woods cooperated in court, they’d both end up in the gas chamber. Blubbering and shaking, Seales confronted Woods in the prison shower room to beg forgiveness, but Woods had his price, and as the black man slowly slid to his knees, the white man’s hand on the back of his neck, the crowd was on its feet shouting, “No!”—pleading and threatening.
A young black guy standing in front of me wearing a knit skullcap bellowed, “Be a man, you punk!” At the end of the scene he remained standing, heaving with outrage, staring’ wildly around the theater. He saw me sitting behind him, slouched down, my face partially obscured by my hand, and before sinking back into his seat, he glared at me and drawled, “You enjoying the show?”
* * * * *
And there are any number of Honorable Mentions:
◻︎ I was taken to see The Ten Commandments for my eighth birthday and experienced my first religious crisis when my father told me that not only was Charlton Heston just an actor playing Moses, but that the guy wasn’t even Jewish.
︎ Experienced another religious crisis years later when I found myself sitting through The Bible a second time just to see the Sodom and Gomorrah part again.
︎ Sat through three consecutive showings of Mean Streets one afternoon, then went home, rifled through a box of family photos, and started the first chapter of Bloodbrothers that same night.
︎ Realized that I was no longer part of the youth vanguard the day I found myself in a revival theater surrounded by a roomful of punky-looking kids cackling at the horrifically dated slang of Easy Rider and Woodstock.
︎ Saw a sneak preview of Bloodbrothers booed by a full house because everybody was expecting the sneak to be Superman.
But the strangest of all my movie house experiences had to be the night I sat in a huge theater and watched myself up on the screen in The Wanderers. I was on for two minutes, playing a lounge lizard in a bowling alley. I talked, I sneered, and I got strangled with my own tie.
Sitting there, I felt absolutely no connection between myself on the screen and myself in the audience; no excitement, embarrassment, anger, or giddiness. I became so unnerved by the numbness of it all that I had to turn my head away from the screen, and in an effort to come back into myself, I put all my energy into watching the crowd watching me.
If you don’t know from Eve Babitz, prepared to be charmed. I wrote about her last week over at Esquire Classic, and can’t recommend her two volumes of memoirs—Eve’s Hollywood and Slow Days, Fast Company—enough. For a little taste of Babitz’s talent, check out this 1987 profile of James Woods, which was originally published in American Film magazine and appears here with the author’s permission.—Alex Belth
“Out of the Woods”
By Eve Babitz
Whenever I think about James Woods, it is either as the affront he was in Split Image, where he plays the cure almost worse than the disease for a family who wants to have their kid deprogrammed from some Moonie-type cult, or else—and this is worse, especially since I was about to go to the Beverly Hills Hotel for one of those “interview breakfasts” in broad daylight—or else I see him hovering over Deborah Harry in Videodrome, helping her indulge her decadent, perverted taste for pain, sticking long needles through her earlobes, licking drops of blood as she slinks orgasmically beneath his hot breath, his hot eyes, his hotness—his coldness. Even Pauline Kael calls him James “the Snake” Woods.
“He’s such a sleaze, Eve,” says the only woman I know who’s immune to him. “He’s like the only guy in the eighth grade who knew about sex.”
“But someone had to,” I reply, thinking of the moment in Videodrome when James Woods spots this TV show of torture that at first he flinches from, but from which he cannot turn away.
Which is exactly how I feel about him.
* * * * *
The Polo Lounge (or the room right next to it where they serve their gardeny breakfast) is graced by ladies in pink outfits to match the pink tablecloths and pinkness of the Beverly Hills Hotel since time began. However, most of the patrons are in the movie business with a vengeance not to be denied. If you like this kind of thing, then the Polo Lounge is it.
He arrives looking like something fresh, aslant in the sunlight and breakfast shadows of an L.A. morning. His clothes are light, his feet are light, and his expression is blank. He seems as capable of being blown out the door as a tumbleweed.
An agent clasps him on the shoulder and says in his ear: “How would you like to do Dracula for Ken Russell?” Woods tells me about it as we move into the Polo Lounge, and I feel suddenly that he is as at home here as a hustler is in a pool hall. All that energy he usually uses to punch weasels into High Art is whirling through his bloodstream.
“Dracula,” I mutter, thinking it’s redundant: James Woods as Dracula—he already is Dracula.
“Hi Olivia, do you have some cream, sweetheart?” he greets our waitress as we settle into one of the ivy green booths. “Did you cut your hair? You look adorable,” he adds as he takes a menu from Olivia, whose hair is short, permed, and gray.
“Thank you,” she says, laughing. “It looks nice for about a month, then it gets too long.”
“Then you look like, uh.” He pauses. “Angela Davis.”
Olivia brings us breakfast, which for the forty-year-old Woods consists of a large orange juice, bacon (“real artery jammers, babe”), and a toasted bran muffin. No cigarettes—he gave them up several months before. Not long ago, he confesses, “I actually had one in my mouth and a match lit. And I thought: If God wants me to smoke this cigarette, he’s going to put this match right to the end of it and I’m going to inhale. And that very moment, God, believe it or not, masquerading as a second AD, came to the trailer and said, ‘You’re needed on the set.’ And I thought: Well, it may not be Jesus in a crèche, but it’s good enough for me.”
I am anxious to know how he feels to be nominated for Best Actor in Salvador. “It was the single happiest day of my life,” he says, looking very sincere and very unsnakelike. “It’s hard to explain, because people sort of expect me to be outrageous and cynical—and I am, about things that deserve cynicism. But I’m not cynical about things like having all your colleagues toast you with something like an Oscar nomination.”
“How did you find out about it?”
“I unplugged my phone in the bedroom and didn’t set the alarm clock, hoping to sleep through the nominations because they were at five-thirty in the morning, and I couldn’t imagine getting up to be disappointed one more time in my life. And I kept hearing the phone ringing in the other room. And I looked at the alarm clock and it was, like, five thirty-one. So I picked up the phone and it happened to be a friend of mine who had told me that I wasn’t nominated for the Golden Globes, when I was, because he got the information wrong. So I thought he was teasing. He said, ‘You got nominated.’ And I said, ‘This is not funny.’ And I hung up on him. And then the phone started ringing some more. He said, ‘I swear to God. Turn on CNN.’ And I turned it on and I was stunned.
“Actors pretend to be so blasé about this stuff: ‘Ah, the Oscars. They don’t mean anything.’ And yet I’ve never met an actor who hasn’t been rehearsing a speech every day of his life on his way to an audition.”
The agent bobs back, smiling loudly at Woods. “We just want to know, are you prepared to shoot Dracula in four days in between two pictures?”
“If I don’t have to do any overtime,” Woods replies.
The agent proceeds: “Listen, when we first tried to put this picture together four years ago, we got a call from this rock star and we flew to Washington, D.C., where he was doing a concert, and the guy actually told Ken that he would be prepared to drain his blood before shooting so he could really look the part—and he said he would actually sleep in a coffin to get into the role.”
Olivia serves us coffee, and the agent, at long last, leaves.
“This guy wants to drain his blood and sleep in a coffin’? It’s like Laurence Olivier’s great line to Dustin Hoffman, who stayed up four days to look tired. He said, ‘Can’t you try acting?’ ”
I am wondering whether he felt Platoon had anything to do with the renewed attention being lavished on Salvador.
“Luckily, Salvador was on videocassette at the time, and people started saying, ‘Gee, Platoon was good. I wonder what Salvador is like.’ The problem is that you try to put a film like Salvador in a theater when there’s fifteen hundred theaters with Pretty in Pink playing for the fifteenth week. Even though the theaters might be empty by the fifteenth week. But a lot of times, when you go to these sixplexes in some shopping mall somewhere in Costa Mesa, it’s the same six studio pictures.”
“So now that Platoon and Salvador have made it, are we going to see a slew of movies about Vietnam and Nicaragua and Beirut?”
“You know, for eighteen years of my career, I’d always hear that I wasn’t a leading man. I would say, ‘Well, how about Humphrey Bogart? How about Dustin Hoffman? AI Pacino? How about…?’ Even Bill Hurt is a good-looking guy, but he’s not some classic walking surfboard. Each time, they sort of get it, but they only get it that one time. It seems like they go out of their way to avoid quality, to find an excuse to hire every football player and model they can. It’s almost uncanny how difficult it is to convince them that maybe, instead of a run of movies about kids getting laid in the backseat of the car, maybe you could have a run of movies about Vietnam or Central America. There are two kinds of movies being made: There’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and there’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,you know, John Hughes’s imbecilic movies. Will I get invited to the prom or not? Who gives a rat’s ass.
“Now Platoon has finally done it. But if Oliver had the script of Salvador right now, and he brought it to a studio, they probably would say, ‘God, you’re great. And Platoon was sensational and we really want to be in business with you, but do you have anything else, maybe? Instead of this thing about Central America?’”
Before I met Woods for the first time, his press agent had told me, “The great thing about Jimmy is that you don’t really have to interview him. Once he gets going, he’s off.” It’s true.
“I hate the guy I played in Salvador—I think he’s a total asshole. I don’t hate him; I’m indifferent to him—the kind of guy who is a drunken, boring, disgusting fool who’s always gypping people with money and lying and bullshitting and all the other wonderful things that compulsive obsessives do—but I loved the story. And I found a way of turning that character into a fictional amalgam of what he is and what I hoped he could be in his life, which caused untold amounts of violence between me and Oliver Stone, but the final synthesis was worthwhile.”
“I hear Oliver Stone is pretty intense.”
“Well, he met his match the day he walked on the Salvador set in Mexico with me. But our arguments were over the right stuff. They were about interpretation, balancing the picture, not making it a polemic. Not making the character too heroic, which Oliver didn’t want. And not making him such a loathsome scumbag that the audience would be so turned off that they wouldn’t get any of it, which was my point of view. And so we had two very antithetical points of view that resulted, I thought, in a very constructive synthesis. And I like to work that way. If it’s all peaches and cream, you’re in trouble, believe me. It’s a cardinal rule of filmmaking that if everybody’s happy at the dailies every night, you’ve probably got a piece of junk on your hands. We struggled through that thing like a war. We’re great friends now.”
“Give me an example of a fight.”
“One day Oliver and I were having a terrible argument. And he said, ‘You know, you’re a rat and a goddamn weasel and I hate you and I hope you die!’ I said, ‘This is great—ten minutes before a scene.’ The next day, we’re doing the scene where I’m trying to convince Elpedia Carrillo to marry me. I was supposed to say to her, ‘OK, so I’ve done some bad things in my life.’ Instead, I said,’OK, I’m a rat and a goddamn weasel!’ And I threw it right in. And he said, ‘Oh, you had to embarrass me, right? You have to throw it into the take.’ And that came out of an argument that Oliver and I had. And he was gracious about leaving it in.”
“What did Richard Boyle think of your Richard Boyle?”
“Richard was pretty content to sort of try screwing the extras and having free lunches and free drinks—which I say affectionately. He was always on the set and, in all seriousness, was concerned to make sure the Salvadoran uniforms looked right, and that the peasants looked right, and so on.
“At one point, one of Boyle’s friends there said, ‘Richard would never wear a Hawaiian shirt.’ I said, ‘No, but on the other hand, what Richard really wears is so frigging ugly that if you put it on the screen, people would walk out of the theater.’ I mean, he has the worst taste in clothes imaginable. My shirts weren’t what he would wear in actual fact, but they did poetically capture the spirit of Boyle more than what Boyle himself would actually wear.”
“So I guess you’d work with Oliver again?” I break in, spearing a strawberry.
“He wanted me to do Platoon, but I didn’t want to go get any more tropical diseases this year,”he replies. “I’ll stick by Oliver, even if his next one isn’t courted and wooed by the critics. I know the vagaries of this business. I know that they can turn on him like a lightning bolt. They may; I won’t. You know, John Daly, chairman of Hemdale, is doing Oliver’s film after the next one. When the bigwigs who all turned down Salvador and Platoon wanted it, he said, ‘Hey, John Daly was my friend. John Daly’s got it.’ I had a studio exec say to me, ‘Well, Oliver Stone doesn’t want to talk to me.’ I said, ‘Well, he knows that you hate him. You may work on the premise of “Hey, if it’s big bucks, screw it!” But there’s a moral consideration. You spit in a guy’s face, he doesn’t wipe it off with a hundred dollar bill. You think I’m a piece of crap? Then I’ll just stay a piece of crap and now you can’t have me, even though I’ve been dipped in gold. Oliver believes in something. You don’t. That’s the difference.”’
* * * *
I first met Woods in a nunnery—that’s right, a nunnery—in downtown L.A., built on a giant estate overlooking the entire smog-laden city baking in eighty-five-degreeish desperation. The bougainvillea are staggered on the terraced garden walls; the walls are stained an Italian sepia, like a Leonardo line drawing. The mixture of downtown L.A. and this thrust of pastoral, idyllic Italy is unnerving.
But then, what about Jimmy Woods isn’t.
The movie is called Best Seller and it’s about a Joseph Wambaugh-type cop-writer (Brian Dennehy) who is contacted by a white-collar hit man (Woods) who wants Dennehy to expose the corporation he works for.
When filming stops for resetting the cameras, Woods comes to me in his Armani suit and we begin to walk down to his trailer.
Me: “Let’s get serious. Where do you get your technique?”
Him: “What kind of technique?”
Me: “Do you have any technique other than plowing forward?”
Him: “I don’t even know what you’re talking about—technique for what?”
Me: “Acting, acting, what you do.”
Him: “Yeah, I put batteries in my alarm clock and try and get here on time.”
Me: “Do you have a philosophy of acting?”
Him: “I admire the James Cagney ‘plant your feet on the ground, look the other guy in the eye, and tell the truth’ school of acting. I’m not into the ‘four hours before you go to work pretend you’re a radish’ school of acting.”
By now we’ve reached this kind of luxurious trailer and spend the next few hours facing each other in claustrophobic air-conditioning across a table in a breakfast nook meant for old retired couples to play gin rummy.
Me: “They said you quit the Tavianis’ new film because you were afraid of being kidnapped and wanted a twenty-four-hour-a-day bodyguard.”
Him: “Actually, it was a stronger reaction. It was when I read that France and Italy provided safe havens for terrorists—and had a tacit agreement with them. And I thought: You bastards weren’t objecting when we left half a million American bodies here to protect your grandmas from being raped by Russians drinking gasoline in 1945. You know what, why don’t you rely on Libyan tourism?”
Me: “Are there any kinds of roles that you don’t want to do, or that you wouldn’t accept?”
Him: “I have made a conscious effort in the past year or two to avoid villains, only because I did a couple that were rather well received, even though they were extremely different characters. But the press can tend to typecast you. Best Seller is my farewell to villainy, but it was such a delicious character, I couldn’t resist it.”
An AD comes to summon Woods to the set. He stands in line with the rest of the people, assembling his lunch—pork chops, apple sauce, peas, mashed potatoes with lots of gravy, and chocolate milk. Director John Flynn comes over and says, “He acts with a pin stuck through his muscle. It gives him that edge. Otherwise he falls asleep.”
“Yeah, with you directing, I’m surprised I don’t have narcolepsy.”
“Yeah, when you sit through the rushes—”
“We could bottle those babies and sell them for Valium.”
* * * * *
Fade to pink and the slanting sunlight of a Beverly Hills morning. We’re back at the Polo Lounge. These days, Woods is busy on a new project for Atlantic Releasing Company, except that this time he’s behind the camera, as well as in front of it. He’s coproducing a film based on the novel Blood on the Moon, a murder-suspense thriller in which he stars as a Los Angeles police detective. I wonder whether, in his role as a producer, he is “nice”?
“I’m never going to be nice. Nice is what studio executives are when they’re offering your part to somebody else behind your back after they’ve already made a deal with you.”
“So what’s it like to be a producer?” I ask.
“It’s great, because I treat people the way I would like to have been treated when I was only an actor,” he says, pushing his plate aside. “It’s easy, if you’re honest—if you’re straightforward. If I’m asking somebody to work for less than the usual salary, what I do is bring out the budget and show it to them. I don’t bullshit around with them.”
“There’s been a big stir about David Puttnam coming out against inflated stars’ salaries,” I say, glancing at the movers and shakers at nearby tables. I can talk Industry with the best of them.
“But it’s not just the stars’ salaries, it’s the executive producers’ salaries. I know that people do not go to see a movie because Jon Peters produced it. They go to see a movie because Robert Redford is starring in it. Or Oliver Stone directed it. I mean, the people who make movies should get paid for making movies, and the people who make phone calls should get paid for making phone calls—by the hour. Unfortunately, they’ve got it all backward in this business.”
Suddenly he looks almost remorseful. “Don’t get me wrong,” he says. “There are studio heads who are friends of mine, whom I like very much. I always dump on these guys and I don’t mean to, because I do not envy them the task they have before them. If I had to answer to the people they have to answer to, I’d probably hang myself. Their job is to make money. The Killing Fields was a studio movie. Terms of Endearment,finally, was a studio movie. And they were great movies.”
This is almost too nice, so I change the subject. “You once told me that it’s usually a bad sign if everything’s going peaches and cream. Do you know when it’s working and when it’s not working?”
“Almost invariably. Not only the performance, but the feeling on the set. I mean, if I see, like, an unbelievably stupid costume on somebody, chances are that there’s five other unbelievably stupid costumes on other actors, because people are either good at what they do or bad at what they do. And usually they’re bad, not for lack of talent, but for lack of dedication. And that drives me crazy. The one thing that makes me want people to disappear from a set is that they’re too busy doing something else and don’t have time to do the job that they’re getting paid for. You know, buying a string of condos in Marina del Rey or whatever else they have on their mind. My attitude is that when you make a film, you eat, drink, and sleep it. And be thankful that you can go twenty-two hours a day, because if you’re spending any time less than that, you’re probably not giving it your best shot.”
“Are you interested in directing?” I ask.
“The T-shirt at Creative Artists Agency—have you ever seen it? It’s an agent sitting behind his desk, holding his head in his hands, and there’s a chair with a dog sitting in it, smoking a cigarette, and the suitcase he has says, ‘Ralph, the Talking Dog.’And the caption is, ‘Of course, what I really want to do is direct’: So, you know. If I ever direct, you’ll know when you go to see the movie, and you can tell me.”
“Is there anything else you’ve always wanted to—”
“—the world? No. I’m fine. See, I wasn’t terrible after all. It’s all a myth.”
Here is our man John Schulian’s 1998 Ali appreciation for GQ, reprinted here with the author’s permission.—AB
Ali! Ali! Ali!
By John Schulian
I remember a night in New York and Muhammad Ali doodling on a paper placemat, his heavyweight glory behind him and the bittersweet future daring him to step toward it. There would be a banquet later, then an award ceremony, and he would fall asleep between the two. Before he did, he nudged me and gestured at what he had wrought with a felt-tip pen and a water glass. It was a globe, complete with continents. “I used to be champion of all that,” Ali whispered in a gentle rasp. Suddenly, I felt the way the nation, and maybe the entire world, would feel eleven years later when he carefully made his way out into the Atlanta night to light the Olympic torch. And yet, as I think about his words now, it seems that Ali, of all people, was understating the case. He was so much more than a champion.
He beat the kind of giants the fight game no longer breeds—Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, the young and thuggish George Foreman—but the true measure of the man was that he instinctively knew what to do afterward, when power and glory were his. No hiding behind the millions he earned, no morphing into the monster that success makes of so many in and out of sports. That would have been too easy, and Ali chose no easy paths in his life outside the boxing ring.
He shed the name Cassius Clay as if it were a slave master’s shackles, he found peace in a religion that confounded the heartland’s sensibilities, and he declined to wage war on a country that hadn’t come looking for a fight. This was a free man in every sense, one who could inspire black Americans when pride became their rallying cry in the sixties. He taught them to believe in themselves, and he taught the rest of us to believe in him. And he made the nation laugh while he was doing it, gleefully tormenting Howard Cosell, performing magic tricks for delighted strangers, and astounding the future pooh-bahs at Harvard with what remains both history’s shortest poem and the best description of his impact on society: “Me. I Whee!”
Transcending his sport, transcending all sports, Ali became the first truly global athlete. He took championship fights out of the traditional fleshpots and deposited them in Third World countries whose faraway villages needed no electricity to get word of his greatness. It didn‘t matter that he ruled the planet in those dark days before ESPN and marketing deals and the other phenomena that have turned his successors into international products instead of mere sports-page swashbucklers. He had himself, and that was enough. At the end of a century in which our relationship with sports has evolved from pastime to preoccupation, you can look as long and as hard as you want and never find anyone who is the equal of Muhammad Ali.
Only four men come close to matching his impact, which may seem a harsh judgment considering the multitude of heroes and champions we have anointed. But this counting is not solely about affection (Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle) or awe (Jim Brown and Wilt Chamberlain), nor is it about one bright, shining moment (Bobby Thomson) or even a career burnished with relentless excellence (Joe DiMaggio and Joe Montana and so many more). It is about all those things and the rare athletes who somehow climbed still higher to write their names so large that they actually forced a seismic shift in society.
The first was Babe Ruth, who drank bathtubs full of gin and bashed enough home runs to single-handedly save baseball from ruination after the Black Sox scandal. Seven decades later, his name is still evoked as a symbol of power, size, and strength, although never so colorfully as when Japanese soldiers taunted their American foes during World War II by shouting, “Fuck Babe Ruth!”
Joe Louis dealt in muscle, too, when he ruled the world’s heavyweights and set the myth of black inferiority to crumbling. “He came forth,” Jesse Jackson once said, “and the cotton curtain came down.” But Louis never talked about it; silence was his style. It was the same proud silence that Jackie Robinson kept when he was breaking baseball’s color line. Once that first season in Brooklyn was history, though, a different Robinson emerged, his voice suddenly as slashing as his style on the diamond. A lifetime of rage poured out of him, filtered by the Ozzie-and-Harriet fifties but still a harbinger of the thunder that Ali would shake down. Michael Jordan shows no sign of knowing about such righteous anger, for he is the ultimate modern athlete, a well-spoken, well-groomed tool of commerce as much as he is a force of nature when the Chicago Bulls absolutely need to win. No one has ever played better basketball than he does, and he may even have surpassed Ali in terms of worldwide impact. But Jordan uses his clout to peddle sneakers and star in unwatchable movies with Bugs Bunny, leaving the very distinct impression that he has the social consciousness of a baked potato.
Ali towers above the competition, despite his own dalliances with show business and roach-trap commercials. What may surprise you is that it isn’t heart and soul that elevate him, though he possesses those qualities in abundance. It is, rather, intellectual courage, a rare concept in the nation’s locker rooms, where the heaviest thinking tends to involve how many bimbos you can
fit on the head of a pin. Though neither scholar nor autodidact,Ali was not afraid of ideas, of the things that hang in the air unseen, daring those who know they’re there to do something with them. He took the dare, just as Robinson did before him, and he made more of it than any athlete ever has or maybe ever will.
Of course, his intellectual courage would mean nothing to us if he hadn’t proved his physical courage first. He did it in our cruelest sport. Boxing kills some men, and it scrambles the brains of others, and an army of doctors will tell you that it cursed Ali with Parkinson’s syndrome. He used to joke about punchy fighters, saying no one would ever catch him walking on his heels and conducting his conversations in mumbles. There is a sad irony to his humor now that he moves through life in slow motion, but he couldn’t have survived in the ring if his mind had been calibrated any other way.
No heavyweight ever traveled a road more fraught with peril than Ali did. Even the second-tier contenders in his era made you realize how soft Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield have had it. Just think of those old wallopers: Earnie Shavers, Doug Jones,Jerry Quarry, Jimmy Ellis, and the surprisingly memorable Ken Norton, who not only defeated Ali but broke his jaw in the process. Ali came back to avenge himself against Norton (barely), and he beat the rest of them, too, because that is what champions do.
He called himself “the Greatest,” though when it comes to assessing modern-day prizefighters, that title may be too rich for those who embrace the savage artistry of Sugar Ray Robinson, a champion as both a welterweight and a middleweight. But as far as heavyweights go, only Joe Louis and JackJohnson deserve to keep Ali’s company in the same sentence, and Ali was bigger and faster than either of them. Lord, could he move. And that isn’t the half of it. He could take a punch, a virtue admittedly with a severe downside, and he could improvise in the middle of a fight like Rodney Dangerfield in a club full of hecklers. If victory lurked somewhere with a microbe’s cunning, Ali would track it down, ever the sweet scientist. He did it when his right hand was dynamite and when it barely qualified as a popgun. He won as a big-mouthed kid from Louisville clinging to his gold medal from the Rome Olympics, and he won after losing prime time in his athletic life for refusing induction into the armed forces. He went through all those changes, and he never lost sight of the fact that he was a showman as well as a render of concussions. So it was that he fought some of the most memorable fights ever, fights that were the stuff of high drama, fights that riveted even those in our midst who take no joy from watching5 men deviate one another’s septums.
He was still Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., so easily dismissed as more prankster than contender, when he plucked the heavyweight crown off baleful Sonny Liston’s noggin in 1964. What a wild ride that was, starting with his driving his bus onto the lawn of Liston’s Denver home in the middle of the night to challenge the head-breaking ex-convict he called “a big, ugly bear.” Came the weigh-in in Miami and his pulse rate more than doubled while he and his goofy shaman, Bundini Brown, shouted his trademark slogan: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee!” But he was doing neither when he came howling back to his corner at the end of the fourth round. He had been blinded by the caustic goo slathered on Liston’s bum shoulder—no one ever identified it more precisely than that—and he wanted out. Fat chance. Angelo Dundee, the amiable pragmatist working his corner, did what he could to wipe away the goo and thrust Ali back into combat. Hell, this was for the championship. Two rounds later, Liston quit in his corner and Ali climbed the ropes to shout, “Eat your words!” at the sportswriters who had said he didn’t have a prayer. It would not be the only time he gave them religion.
Still, the general reluctance to believe in him endured until he fought Liston again fifteen months later in a hockey rink in Lewiston, Maine. When they were finally in the ring, everything changed in, oh, let’s call it a minute. That was all the time it took Ali to find an opening to throw what was either a perfect punch or the excuse Liston needed to take a dive. The fight racket’s historians may never stop debating the right hand that couldn’t have traveled more than four inches. But know this: No matter how loudly Ali challenged him once he went down—“Get up and fight, sucker!”—Liston stayed that way until the referee counted ten over him.
George Foreman was the other classic bully Ali left hoist on his snarl. Big George hardly fits the description now that he has assumed the role of boxing’s jolly, cheeseburger-eating uncle. But in 1974 Foreman reveled in the meanness he had exported from Houston’s bloody Fifth Ward. He was the undefeated champion by then, and after the way he had laid waste to Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, it looked as if he would rule until he grew bored or got locked up. Going to Zaire for his “Rumble in the Jungle” with Ali seemed an annoying formality. He grumped and glowered every step of the way, while Ali charmed the Africans he embraced as long-lost kin. Foreman’s disposition didn’t improve any when the fight had to be delayed six weeks after he was cut in a sparring session. Worst of all, he and Ali had to put up their dukes at four in the morning to accommodate the dosed-circuit crowd back home—hardly a mood enhancer.
But the ultimate indignity for Foreman was the way Ali flummoxed him once they finally climbed into the ring. Ali even had a name for the flash of inspiration that struck him when he realized he didn’t have the legs to dance for fifteen rounds. He called it the “Rope-a-Dope.” Starting in the second, he leaned against the ropes and let Foreman blast away at his forearms and elbows. Nobody could believe what was happening, least of all Dundee, who had assumed until now that he was on the same wavelength as Ali. But this was a singular thinker at work, and by the sixth, what had seemed madness was being hailed as genius. Foreman didn’t have anything left—the danger in his punches had been used up. All that remained for Ali was to knock him out in the eighth so he could walk into the dawning day and do magic tricks for the African kids who had come to love him.
The fights that best defined Ali, however, were the three with Frazier. Here was Smokin’ Joe, a sharecropper’s son who punched his way from a job in a slaughterhouse to a heavyweight title of his own, and the purity of his vision in the ring touched something deep in Ali. When they did battle—and what transpired between deserves no less noble a phrase—it was never about money or a championship or any of the other things for which men beat one another senseless. Something far more personal was at work. It was as though, someone once said, Ali and Frazier were fighting for “the championship of each other.”
Frazier hated Ali, and not without reason. Ali called him “ignorant.” Ali called him “gorilla” and “Uncle Tom.” Ali called him the white man’s hope, when every aspect of Frazier’s life had been shaped by his being poor and black. So it doesn’t take much to imagine the rage with which Frazier stalked Ali the first time they fought. The year was 1971; the place was Madison Square Garden; the atmosphere was unlike anything you can possibly imagine for a fight today. The entire nation was swept up by the anticipation of what would happen between the undefeated Frazier and Ali, whose only loss up to this point had come at the hands of the U.S. government. Fifteen rounds later, Frazier had beaten Ali’s handsome face lopsided and won a unanimous decision. But Ali salvaged something from the wreckage: respect. He found it in the final round, after Frazier dropped him with a left hook that Ali’s unborn children must have felt. The easy thing would have been to lie there and be counted out. Ali couldn’t do that, even though the fight was almost over and winning was out of the question. He climbed back to his feet and got punished some more. If there had been questions about his courage, they were answered right there.
Ali-Frazier II barely registers in memory. Neither man was a champion at the time, and the pre-fight scuffle they had on national television, with Howard Cosell ducking for cover, was in its bizarre way more interesting than the fight itself. But Ali won the unanimous decision this time, leaving them even and setting the stage for the legendary “Thrilla in Manila.” Not that anyone anticipated greatness when the fight was made. Frazier was in small pieces after Foreman demolished him to take away his title. Ali had been coasting since he, in turn, had waylaid Foreman in Zaire. When he reached the Philippines, change didn’t seem imminent. Just riding herd on his entourage, which numbered half a hundred and ran to the exotic, seemed a job that would have stymied Patton. And then there was his second marriage, crumbling while he frolicked publicly with Veronica Porche, the icy beauty who would become the next Mrs. Ali. But the sight of Frazier boring in on him one last time snapped everything back into focus.
It was a fight in three acts—classic Hollywood structure. When the curtain went up in the sweltering Araneta Coliseum, Ali greeted Frazier with a boxing lesson that lasted for the first four rounds, sticking and moving, even giving him a dose of his own left-hook medicine. Frazier ate one punch after another until his time arrived, and then, from the fifth round until the eleventh, he gave Ali a beating of biblical proportions. Ali tried to cover up against the ropes, but Frazier hammered his arms and body until they went soft and left his head an unprotected target. Asked afterward how he felt, Ali said, “Next to death.”
Somehow he survived. Reaching down into the well of fury and courage that only Frazier could drive him to, Ali summoned three of the most magnificent rounds of his career. He pounded Frazier relentlessly, hammering the sweat off him in sheets, knocking his mouthpiece flying, and turning his face into a Halloween mask of lumps and bruises and blood. There would be no fifteenth round for Frazier; he stayed on his stool when the bell called him to action. In the winner’s corner, with everyone who hadn’t thrown a punch going nuts, Ali celebrated by sitting on a stool, wondering if his heart would explode.
If he had only stayed there, he might not be in the muzzy limbo where we find him now. Surely Frazier had inflicted enough damage to last Ali the rest of his days, just as he in turn had done to Frazier. But Ali was a fighter, and fighters fight, so he marched off to war for six more years. The low point was the beating he incurred in 1980 at the hands of Larry Holmes, once his sparring partner and before that a housing-project kid who was only too happy to stow away on the champ’s bus. The last traces of Ali’s boxing genius were pillaged that night in the parking lot outside Caesars Palace, and the prevailing emotion afterward was true sorrow. At the end of the line, Ali had achieved a state of grace with the public he had amused, agitated, enlightened, and sometimes simply scared to death.
Grace, however, was a long time coming, for he wasn’t always an easy icon to love. There was, for one thing, the anger that poisoned his early fights, an anger far beyond whatever a boxer needs to function in that Darwinian environment. The beatings he inflicted on Floyd Patterson and Ernie Terrell for calling him Cassius Clay were cruel, even barbaric, and his ugly baiting of Frazier was mean-spirited and, far worse, completely unjustified. He was just as cruel to the wives who had to put up with his relentless philandering, although it would have taken a eunuch to resist the temptation he faced daily. But none of that roiled public sentiment as much as his entrance into the Nation of Islam, which smacked of nothing less than a black man’s version of the Klan. In one instant, he was the Louisville Lip, sure to get busted open by Liston; in the next, he was the unlikely champion and Elijah Muhammad, the crusader who decried white devils, was bestowing a Muslim name on him. Whites, both devils and otherwise, suddenly looked at Ali as if he were the one who had sprouted horns and a tail.
It was only the beginning of the spiritual gauntlet he had to run. When he responded to his draft notice by saying, “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong,” his world was turned upside down. There would be no conscientious-objector status for him on religious grounds; instead he was hit with the loss of his championship and a federal conviction in 1967 for refusing induction into the army. As far as boxing went, the next three and a half years vanished, but Ali persevered, touring college campuses to speak out on Vietnam, race, and religion. John Kennedy had been assassinated, and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were fated to cross paths with lunatic killers, and still Ali forged ahead, working the same territory as those brave souls. The FBI shadowed his every step, but that didn’t stop him, either. He kept on telling the truth as he±an unlettered, basically apolitical man—knew it. And the truth set him free.
The sixties took care of the rest. It was a time for rebels, for Bob Dylan with his protest songs and Eugene McCarthy with his crusade against the war, and Ali was a perfect fit. The kids who delighted in scorning most everything else were the first to flock to the light he gave off. Their elders would follow in the years ahead, moved in part by the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision to overturn his conviction, but primarily because he was able to move beyond the rage that had been so necessary. Then the holdouts embraced him the way they never would Jane Fonda, the sixties’ other great celebrity rebel, or the contemporary athletes who think they honor his legacy by strutting and running their mouths.
No matter how his late-arriving admirers looked at him, Ali proved impossible to resist. Profile left, he was a three-time champ with a place in history outside the ring and a black man who, even at his most amusing, never let himself be hamstrung by the whiteman’s world. From the right side, he was the movie-star handsome scamp who billed himself as “Dark Gable” and the dead-pan joker who, when a pair of his boxing gloves were enshrined in the Smithsonian, asked, “You gonna put a rug in here?” Taken straight on, he was the dreamer who wanted to open soup kitchens for the poor around the country and the soft touch who had a thousand-dollar-a-day habit when it came to handouts.
Every time the spotlight that was always on him moved, it seemed to reveal something new about Ali, something worth study at the least, admiration at best. Yet all those angles and all those facets led to a single conclusion, and it endures to this day: He was exactly who he was put on earth to be. One of a kind. One for a century.
[Our old pal Robert Ward has been telling a story about Rod Steiger for years and he's kind enough to drop by and share it with us. For some good ol’ on location movie fun, check this out.—Alex Belth]
By Robert Ward
I was in Durango, Mexico in the 70′s on the set of a movie I had written called Cattle Annie and Little Britches, a comic western starring Amanda Plummer as Cattle Annie and Diane Lane as Little Britches. The male stars were Burt Lancaster as Bill Doolin and Rod Steiger as Bill Tilghman, the sheriff who hunts the gang of outlaws down. The whole tale was pretty much true, about the teen aged girls joined the infamous Doolin Dalton Gang. They were smarter than the boys and ended up planning their robberies.
The shoot was going fine until Rod Steiger showed up. He and Lancaster hated one another because of some financial matter, which had transpired years back when they were going to be in the movie making business together. Apparently, Rod pulled out at the last minute and the whole project nearly fell apart. Lancaster kept it together with other people but there was still bad blood between them. Perhaps that was part of the reason for the ghastly things that transpired that night. That and the fact that Steiger was on the down side of his career and was feeling vulnerable.
In any case we held a first night “welcome to the movie ” dinner party for Rod at a real Mexican restaurant in down town Durango, with real Mexicans in it. Everyone but the movie people and Rolling Stone writer Jack Hicks were local folks. The party started on time but Rod showed about a half hour late. He was seated in the middle of the table next to some of the gang members, cowboys like Kenny Call, who had won every major rodeo award known to man. Rod objected to this seating and demanded to be at the head of the table where the producer Rupert Hitzig was sitting. Under his breath he mentioned his Academy Award for “The Pawnbroker.” Rupert happily gave up his seat to Rod, who was now sitting next to me.
We all started eating, and drinking, trying to forgetthe nasty vibes Rod had laid on the gathering. Things seemed ok, until this young girl got up with her guitar. She was about 14, and sang these earnest love songs in Spanish walking among the tables as she warbled. She was young, beautiful and her songs were heartfelt. Everyone loved her, the Mexican patrons, and our table applauded fiercely. Everyone but one man, Rod Steiger. He looked at me and said, “Do you see what she’s doing?” I said, “Yes, she’s singing a song and doing it quite well too.” Rod glared at me and said “No, she is trying to destroy me! I heard you play the guitar today Ward. Get it from her. We have to top her!”
I tried to reason with him. “Rod, you’re a international movie star. You don’t need to compete with a 14 year old girl.” Rod looked at me, said “You obviously know nothing about competition. You must always compete with anyone who tries to top you.” Reluctantly, I asked the girl if we could borrow her guitar. She was happy to loan it to us. I sat down and started playing some blues licks and Senor Rod got up and began to improvise a blues song which sounded like something Sophie Tucker might have sang.
Hideous would not be too strong a word to describe his singing. He pranced through the tables, sometimes hitting them, and upsetting glasses of wine and beer. Yet, the patrons were kind and clapped for him, some even yelling “Hooray for Senor Rod.” He sat down and smiled in a victorious way and we all began to eat again.
It was then that I noticed these four swarthy Mexican workers staring at us. These guys were muscular and wore grimy shirts. They had obviously just come off some tough job. They didn’t like Senor Rod. They didn’t like me, the guitar player, I was pretty certain. I tried to ignore them. Everything seemed to cool down. That is, until the girl got up and sing again. This time she sang the song of her native town, Durango. Heartfelt sentiments about her home, city of her family, city of her heart. People went crazy whistling, yelling.
Senor Rod looked at me. “Get the guitar, Ward. You don’t understand, we can’t give in!” I looked at Hitzig who whispered that I had to play or Rod might not show up tomorrow to say his lines! So I borrowed the guitar again, feeling like the biggest ass in Mexico. This time Senor Rod got up on the floor and poured Cognac into people’s drinks as he waddled around singing more of his horrible, show tune blues. This time there was practically no applause and the four tough workers glared at all of us. It was now obvious to everyone in the place that Rod was trying to top the local heroine. And failing miserably.
Everyone in our party felt that disaster was about to strike us all so we paid the bill and ran out to the cars which waited to take everyone to the safety of the set encampment. A few seconds later everyone was safely whisked away. That is, everyone but Rolling Stone reporter Hicks and yours truly. We were mere writers after all. Who cared what happened to us? So we were left out in the street outside of a restaurant where inside lay a gang of Mexicans who rightly hated us as the ultimate Ugly Gringos. I prayed a little: “God, don’t let that door open until we can call for a cab.” I put pesos into the pay phone on the corner and waited. And then it happened.
The door to the cafe opened and the four Mexican hardasses who had been eyeing us all night, stepped out, and walked toward us. They walked in lockstep and looked like they were out to kick some serious American butt. As they got closer I whispered to Hicks, “This is it man. I’m hitting the first guy and you get the guy on his left” “What then?”Jack said. You’re your ass off.” Was my clever reply. They came closer, closer still and then the toughest one stopped, only a foot away from me. He stared into my eyes and said: ” Hey man you play Chuck Berry?”
I was so stunned by this friendly request I almost answered with the a hostile reply. Then I heard what he had actually said. Stunned, I smiled and said, “Hell yes, I do.” He smiled and said, “Then come on back in. Let’s have some fun, man!” And Hicksie and I went back in with our new amigos, and played all night. As we drank and sang “Maybelline,” the toughest one, Julio, looked at me, laughed and said, “You know Bobby, we all knew you hated Senor Rod as much as we did.” They were right, I did.
Entering May of 1920, Ruth’s inaugural season in New York and that of the Yankees was at a crossroads. Ruth was hitting .226 in nine games with only a single extra base hit and one walk. The only record he was pursuing was the strikeout mark. With eight in 32 plate appearances, he was on pace to strike out more than 130 times for the season. To date, no one had ever approached 100. In nearly 600 appearances in 1919, Joe Jackson had struck out only 10 times and only 234 times for his entire career. Strikeouts were okay only if they were countered by home runs.
It was even worse than that. The Yankees were only 4–6, still in sixth place. Boston? Minus Ruth, they were a stellar 9–2. The press was referring to them as the “Ruthless” Red Sox, fully aware of the irony the name entailed. If there was truly a “Ruthless” team thus far, it had been the Yankees. So far, Ruth had been a hit only at the box office, but if he didn’t start banging the ball soon, one had to wonder how long that would last.
For Ruth, the 1920 season was shaping up as a repeat of 1919, only this time he was wearing pinstripes. Once more, just as his slow start in 1919 had buried the Red Sox, Ruth’s por performance thus far threatened to bury the Yankees, risking that whatever he did later in the season, no matter how spectacular, might be diminished. He had been given a pass on that in 19 19, but if the same thing happened in 1920 it was unlikely to go unnoticed a second time. That was the problem with all the press in New York. When they were on your side, it was grand, but they could also gang up on you. More than one Yankee manager had felt their wrath.
Although the Yankee–Red Sox rivalry was not as pronounced as it would later become, each team already considered the other its main rival. The Ruth sale put an accent on that, at least in the minds of the fans. For Boston, 9-2 on the year, coming into New York in first place was a familiar feeling. Since the founding of the American League the Red Sox, despite lacking the resources of New York City, had been the team the Yankees one day hoped to be, a champion and near annual contender. So far, with the Yankees sixth at 4-6, already 4 ½ games out, nothing had much seemed to change.
In game one, on April 30, it appeared as if that would hold. Before a sizable weekday crowd of 8,000 who turned out despite intermittent showers, the Red Sox tried their best to put their foot on the Yankees’ neck. After all, a five-game sweep would virtually ruin New York, and put them in the same position the Red Sox had been a year ago, likely too far back to climb into the race.
Ruth did his best to prevent that in the first inning, cracking a single to knock in a run and give the Yankees the lead, but that was to be his only hit of the day. Waite Hoyt settled down and Boston went to 10–2 for the season with a 4–2 win, as the Yankees fell to 4–7.
The only other notable occurrence came every time Ruth ran out to right field, and every time he ran back in. In only his third appearance in the position at the Polo Grounds, fans packed the right field bleachers to get as close as possible, a disproportionate number compared to the rest of the stands. Every time Ruth ran out to take his position, they cheered and applauded madly. And every time he left them, they cheered again. The same thing happened when he stepped out of the dugout, or into the batter’s box, or scratched his nose. He hadn’t even done anything yet and was getting twenty or more standing ovations a day. One writer termed it “The Babe Ruth roar. . . . Down as far as 125th Street [in] Harlem folks can now tell when Ruth comes to bat. The roar shakes the whole vicinity. The fans roar for Babe to hit ’em and when he misses fire they roar because he didn’t.” In this game, it was more the latter than the former.
Shawkey, the Yankees’ ace, took the mound the next day, May Day. Thus far, although he’d pitched well, he was 0–3—the Yanks had scored more than three runs only once all season. Offense was up everywhere, it seemed, other than in the Polo Grounds. Those Ruthless Red Sox, in contrast, were scoring runs at a frightening rate. So far, they had been held to three runs or under only three times. The rest of the time, they were clubbing teams to death like defenseless rabbits, and giving ammunition to those who still favored the scientific approach.
This, time, however, Shawkey was sharp from the start. The only question was whether the Yankees could take advantage. They scored one in the first—Ruth reached on a force-out, moved around to third, and then, on a ground ball to Everett Scott, Ruth deked his old shortstop into thinking he was staying at third, then timed Scott’s throw to first perfectly, taking off for home and beating Stuffy McInnis’s throw to the plate. Although Ruth was never quite the ballplayer who “never made a mistake on the field” as the hyperbole later suggested, he was a smart player, surprisingly quick for his size—particularly before he ate his way through half of Manhattan—and he knew baseball. Hundreds of games played at St. Mary’s had developed his instincts beyond his years. If anything, Ruth was sometimes too aggressive on the bases, overestimating both his speed and his ability to surprise.
He did it again in the fourth. Ruth rapped a hard liner between McInnis and first base, the ball passing the bag fair, then it hit the ground, then skipped to the wall, where it caromed off the concrete base and sent Harry Hooper racing after as Ruth pulled into second for a double. He wisely moved to third on an infield out and then, after Pratt grounded to second, Ruth timed a dash home again. It was closer this time, but he made a splendid fall-away slide, his foot sweeping across the plate as the catcher spun and reached out to make the tag. The Yankees led 2–0, and so far it was all due to Ruth.
Something was building, you could tell. If he had been bothered by any lingering discomfort from the pulled muscle he’d suffered at the start of the season, the slides proved either he was healed, or the injury taped, or somehow masked over. Ruth was feeling no pain.
Pennock struck out Pipp to lead off the sixth, bringing up Ruth, who was greeted with the now customary histrionics, this time even a little louder due to his performance in the first half of the game.
Pennock threw one pitch and a sound like no other rocketed through the park. The ball went up and up and toward right field.
What happened next released a deluge of adjectives and adverbs from the New York press, verbiage they’d been sitting on since the first week of January. Now that they had a chance to use it, they didn’t stop.
The embellishment prize went to George Daley, writing under the pseudonym “Monitor” in the New York World:
Ruth strolled to the plate, decided it was time to OPEN THE SEASON and sunk his war club into the first ball Pennock tried to pass over the plate.
There came a burst of thunder sound: that ball, oh, where was it? Why clear OVER the right field roof of Brush Stadium [the Polo Grounds] and dropping into the greensward of old Manhattan Field around the junction of Eighth Avenue and 156th Street—the longest drive they say EVER seen on the P.G. and longer even that the tremendous wallop that gave Babe his twenty-ninth homer last September.
Eyes were strained in the watching of the spheroid’s flight; throats were strained in acclaiming its all-fired bigness, and hands were strained in a riot of applause to the hitter thereof as he ambled around the bases and, lifting his cap, disappeared into the dugout.
Whew. What he meant was it left the field between the third and fourth flagpole atop the roof in right field and landed in the park next door, only the third ball ever to leave the yard, as Ruth joined himself and Joe Jackson as the only prior practitioners. To be fair, the ball was driven about 400 feet when it left the park, although no one could say with any certainty whether it struck the top of the roof or sailed cleanly over it. The grandstand roof was some sixty feet above the field, but its front edge, where the ball passed over, only a bit more than 300 feet from home. Regardless, it was still, in the parlance of the day, “a prodigious blast” and “fierce clout,” absolutely “lambasted,” one that “flitted out of the park,” “a bomb.”
It also gave the Yankees a 3–0 lead. A moment later, while the fans were still cheering, Duffy Lewis, up next, duplicated the feat, although in much more mortal fashion, smacking a home run into the left field bleachers.
That occurrence, back-to-back home runs, was so rare no one could recall it happening before. Two consecutive home runs? Both OVER the fence? The lively ball needed no more proof.
Ruth’s home run, his first as a Yankee, was the one he needed most. Now the dam was broken, now everything he was supposed to be, he suddenly was, now the pressure was off and the game was fun again. Now he was, unquestionably and everlastingly, the Babe. The remainder of his career fell beneath the shadow of what was to come.
After the game, a 6–0 Yankee win, the press noted that it was Ruth’s 50th career home run. Heck, Ty Cobb, who had been playing since 1905, only had 67 career home runs. Home Run Baker had just 80. Ruth already had 50. He had only hit one home run as a Yankee and the press was already setting goals and targets. They would do so for most of the next fifteen years. Hardly anyone even mentioned that the victory might prove a turnaround for the team. The Babe was all and everything.
In case no one had noticed, the next day Ruth did it again, as the Times noted, “At what was known in the old days as an opportune time.” In his first two times up, he collected a “mighty” strikeout (they all were “mighty” now) and then lofted a “near home run” (just about any deep fly ball) before coming up in the sixth with two on and the Yankees trailing 1–0.
After a swinging strike and a foul tip off Sam Jones, his former teammate tried to sneak one past . . . and failed. This was no blast over the roof but a drive down the line. But even that wasn’t special enough. It was described as “the lowest and fastest home run drive uncoiled in the Harlem park in years,” maybe the shortest of Ruth’s career, sneaking over the fence and into the upper deck just fair of the iron foul pole, 258 feet away.
It didn’t matter to the fans, 25,000 of whom filled the park, the second home Sunday date of the year, bringing the Sabbath total to more than 50,000. As Ruth rounded the bases, they climbed on the dugout roof and tossed papers and hats onto the field. There were even reports of celebrations emanating from the apartment windows of buildings on Coogan’s Bluff. Even the Polo Grounds stage wasn’t big enough for Ruth.
The countdown began the next day. The Times noted, “Babe needs only twenty-eight more
homers to beat the big record he set last season. At the rate of one a day that mark won’t last
“[My] popularity after Beverly Hills Cop—all that ‘He’s so hot’ shit—everything was going out of control. Everything came too easy … And when the laughs come too easy, you start doing things like walking through movies. You get too comfortable. You start getting out of control. You start tripping. You argue. You get the big head. You wear a leather suit and a glove with a ring on the outside.
“And I let myself get fat. There’s nothing like going into a movie theater and looking up on screen and you’re a fat guy in a bad movie.”
Here he laughs. Not the “Eh! Eh! Eh!” laugh, though—he never laughed that laugh in his customized bus.
“But I came out of that head … Now I’m as happy as I’ve ever been. I’ve got a beautiful chick, a beautiful daughter [Bria, age 3], a great record, a great movie. But it was a long time coming.”
I love the movie version of Paul Hemphill’s baseball novel, Long Gone. It wasn’t released theatrically but went straight to HBO instead. Came out the year before Bull Durham and in some ways–the sex and cursing–I like it more. It’s closer to Slap Shot in its vulgarity and doesn’t have the self-conscious speech-making of Bull Durham. It’s not a great movie, there are some obvious plot turns, but it sure is appealing: the cast is terrific, and it’s got a real pulse.
Hemphill’s novel about minor league baseball in the South during the 1950s is also a ton of fun.
Her name was Dixie Box, only child of Floyd and Clarice Box, of Route 2, Crestview, Florida, and since the age of twelve she had been wondering what would happen next. Conceived out of wedlock, raised in a trailer camp, with only the sons and daughters of black day laborers to play with, Dixie had grown up with the notion that to live in a brick house with a picture window in downtown Dothan was to have a hold on the world. Her father had left home when she was in the midst of her first menstrual period. (“Men always run at times like this, honey,” her mother had said as Dixie held a bloody towel to her crotch and endured a twenty-minute tirade about the casual ineptitude of the male in general.) Dixie would receive mysterious picture postcards from her father now and then, from places like Oregon and Arizona and New Jersey, until they abruptly stopped and were followed by a terse postcard from a fellow in Nacogdoches, Texas, named Ralph Terwilliger, informing her of her father’s death when he was chewed up by a saw in an East Texas pulp mill. (“You ought to know,” Terwilliger had scrawled, “that your old man was the damnedest drinker I ever saw in my whole life.”) Upon receiving the postcard, Dixie holed up for eight days in her room. When she emerged, she was a woman.
She was fourteen years old when that happened, a freshman in a high school where the ultimate was to be a cheerleader, a “poor girl” without a daddy and with a mama who worked down at Maxwell’s Department Store. And so she became Dixie (Hot) Box. She relinquished her virginity to a boy named Horace Williams, who pumped gas at the Gulf station on the Dothan highway, one starry night in the back seat of Horace’s ’50 Chevy as they parked beneath a clump of pine trees—“It hurt, but it hurt good,” she told her mother when she got back home—and from that moment on, Dixie Box became the most popular girl in Crestview. During a four-hundred-day period, according to her personal journal, she brought to orgasm one hundred eighteen different men. They ranged from the black kid who swept out Maxwell’s Department Store to the deputy police chief of Crestview.
Dixie stirred awake at noon, while Stud and Jamie were at the ballpark. The ceiling fan was creaking. Sweat bees were droning around her head. Maids’ carts were rattling up and down the hallway of the decrepit hotel. Pickup trucks were slinking around on the streets outside.
She took a long look around the room. She didn’t know precisely where she was. She knew, only generally, that she was home. The room looked and smelled like her father—whiskey, cigar smoke, clutter—and she wanted it. Peeling out of the rumpled bed, she slipped into her white shorts and pink halter and high-heeled sandals and then walked out of the room.
Off the lobby, which was peopled by wheezing old men propped up in cracked plastic chairs and reading the Montgomery Advertiser, an orange sign over a doorway blinked BOOM-BOOM ROOM. She took the worn carpeted stairs at the doorway and walked down one flight into the dank bar. It was done up in neo-Hawaiian, with revolving pastel lights and a phony bamboo ceiling and colored beads and a straw-mat floor, and from the Technicolor jukebox in one corner came the heavy beat of Fats Domino singing “Blueberry Hill.”
Ah foun’ mah threeal
Awn Blueberry Heeal…
Dixie wriggled onto one of the bamboo stools at the bar and checked herself out in the dappled room-wide mirror behind the bar. In the darkest corner of the room were two businessmen in short-sleeved see-through nylon dress shirts and two gap-toothed route salesmen with rows of ballpoint pens jammed in the chest pockets of their blue work shirts. Dixie pulled a Winston from her halter top and was lighting up when a plump blue-haired barmaid in a skirt slit to her thighs came up to her from behind the bar. “Honey, you cain’t wear that in here,” the barmaid said.
“Cain’t wear whut?” Dixie said.
“Well, that. Halters and short-shorts ain’t allowed.”
“You wouldn’t be jealous, would you?”
“Now, look, honey.”
“Look, honey, yourself. Gimme a Jax.”
“Besides, how old are you?”
“Old enough to like Jax for breakfast.”
“Honey, we cain’t serve minors.”
“And put it on Cantrell’s tab.”
The barmaid blinked. “Cantrell?”
“Mister Cecil Cantrell. Room Twenty-four. He’s my guardian.”
“Honey, I didn’t know—”
“Neither does he,” Dixie said. She blew smoke into the barmaid’s face. The barmaid opened an ice-cold can of Jax beer and slid it down the shellacked bar to Dixie. The four men at the table ordered another round of drinks and began ogling Dixie, talking low among themselves and motioning toward her, until finally one of them got up and approached her.
“Anything special you’d like to hear on the jukebox?” he said.
“Anything you want to dedicate to me is fine with me,” she said.
He dropped a dime into the jukebox and returned to the other three men at the table.
Kitty Kallin’s recording of “Little Things Mean a Lot” began to play. The salesman poked one of the others with his elbow and, when he caught a glance from Dixie, held up both hands about five inches apart and began laughing and nodding. Dixie couldn’t help herself. She shook her head sideways and began to giggle out of control.
She was starting on a second beer when Stud and Jamie came in through the step-down entrance to the Boom-Boom Room from the sidewalk. Jamie still carried his bat and his glove and his spikes. Stud, squinting and making the adjustment from the brilliant sunlight to the darkness of the bar, saw Dixie and motioned for Jamie to follow him. “Well, if it ain’t Miss Crestview,” Stud said as he and Jamie hoisted themselves onto stools on either side of her.
“You got me drunk,” Dixie told him.
“That ain’t the half of it. Gimme a Jax, Bonnie. This here’s my new temporary second baseman, Jamie Weeks, from Birmingham, Alabama, and the Sho-Me Baseball Camp in Missouri. Beer, kid?” Stud slapped his cowboy hat on Dixie’s head.
Jamie said, “Just a Coke.”
“A Coke?” Stud said. “Got me a goddamn Baptist.”
“I just don’t feel like a beer right now.”
“Coke, Bonnie. Put ’em on my tab.” Stud looked at Dixie. “See you got your beauty sleep. Don’t believe we’ve officially met yet. I’m Stud Cantrell. This is Jamie Weeks. Who’re you?”
“Dixie Box—Dixie Lee Box—from Crestview, Florida.”
“Dixie”—Stud was howling—“Dixie Lee Box?”
“You heard it right. Dixie…Lee…Box.”
“You a stripper or something?”
“I roast the best cashews in Crestview.”
“Cashews,” Stud said. “Them’s nuts, ain’t they?””
“I’m not going to pay any attention to that,” said Dixie. “It would be demeaning to the people at Maxwell’s Department Store.”
“Is that”—Stud was still laughing—“is that where you work? Dixie Box? You the cashew-nut girl at Maxwell’s Department Store in Crestview, Florida?” He punched Jamie in the ribs with his elbow. “I don’t rightly recall that I ever met a real live cashew-nut roaster before. Not on a personal basis, anyway, if you know what I mean.”
“I know what you mean. Stud. Is that it? ‘Stud’?”
“Cantrell, ma’am. Stud Cantrell.”
Dixie sipped the rest of her beer. “Well, Stud Cantrell of the Graceville Oilers, you ’bout ready to go? It’s gonna take up nearly four hours, just to get there and back, and that’s if we’re lucky getting rides.”
“Go?” A pall fell over Stud. “I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
“Sure you are. You’re going to Crestview.”
“Hell, I was in Crestview last night.”
“Sure you were. With me. We’re going again.”
“What’s this ’we’ shit?”
Dixie said, “Me and you. Gotta get my car.”
“Wait just a goddamn minute, here.”
“We gotta get my car and my clothes and my toothpaste, and I gotta leave a note for Mama, and I guess I ought to go into the refrigerator at the trailer and take out some more of the cash from Daddy’s insurance policy. Then I suppose I owe it to ’em to run by Maxwelfs and tell ’em where to put their cashews—“
“Now just a goddamn—“
“—and possibly, in case you keep on saying ‘Just a goddamn minute,’ drop in on the sheriff and tell him I’m just an innocent little girl who got taken advantage of by some mean-eyed fucker who’s old enough to be my daddy.”
When Dixie finished, she looked sweetly into Stud’s eyes and batted her lashes and said, “Shouldn’t we leave a tip for Bonnie? She’s such a nice girl. A little fat. But nice.”
Stud slammed two quarters on the bar and dismounted from the stool.
“Go ahead and check into Myrick’s Boarding House, kid,” he said to Jamie, “and I’ll take care of this. Get to the park by five o’clock for batting practice.” Jamie grabbed his bat and glove and spikes and followed Stud and Dixie up the steps, out of the Boom-Boom Room, into the sunlight on the sidewalk. He turned left, to walk toward the boardinghouse, and when he looked back, he saw Stud gesticulating wildly to Dixie as they went toward the highway to hitch a ride to Crestview.
By four o’clock in the afternoon they were tooling back eastward on U.S. 90, between Crestview and Graceville, with the top down on Dixie’s battered ’50 blood-red Chevrolet convertible. They had hitched to Crestview in one ride, riding in the back of a pickup truck with two hogs, and stopped at the ballpark to get the car. Then they had driven to the trailer park on the east side of town where Dixie was living with her mother. Dixie’s mother was off at work, in the department store downtown, so she left a note—
I’ll be living in Graceville for a while, with a friend, so don’t try to come and get me. I got some clothes and I took $200 of Daddy’s insurance money. Don’t worry I’ll be alright.
P.S.—You’d love him.
—and hurriedly stuffed jeans and t-shirts and sneakers and toiletries into a brown paper grocery bag, tossing the bag into the back seat of the car before sliding behind the steering wheel and cranking the Chevy and scratching off.
Now, a half hour away from Graceville on the return trip, they were wobbling down the road as the car radio hummed with the Platters’ Greatest Hits. Stud was stripped down to the waist, taking in the sun, half awake and leaning against the door while Dixie drove.
“I sure love those Platters,” Dixie said.
“Humph?” Stud mumbled, jerking up straight.
“I said I sure love those Platters. Way they sing.”
“Bunch of niggers, if you ask me.”
“What’re you, one of them hillbilly singers?”
“Gimme a choice, I’d take Kitty Wells any day.” Stud yawned, stretched, sat up straight, and slipped back into his t-shirt. “Where’d you get the car? Hell, I ain’t even got a car. And that money you got out of the trailer. Them clothes.”
“I told you. When Daddy got killed. Insurance.”
“You didn’t even stop at the department store.”
“They know what they can do with their cashews.”
“Whhee-eww,” Stud said. “You’re something else. Goddamn banging on my door this morning and I said, ’Pussy posse.’ I figured it was half of Crestview coming after me, gonna leave me out on the road, nail up a burning cross, and take you back home. How many brothers you got? I mean big brothers. Bigger’n me.”
“No brothers,” said Dixie. “No sisters. Just Mama.”
“Yo’ mama big and mean?”
“Mean as shit.”
“How far we got to go?” Stud said.
“Ballpark. Graceville. We got a game tonight.”
“I figure we’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
Stud tilted his hat and scratched his groin and lighted a cigar. “Whhee-eww,” he said. “You’re crazy as Talmadge Ramey. You know that? Talmadge is this goddamn queer that runs the ballclub. Drinks moonshine with tea at nine in the morning. Got three of the prettiest little boys you ever saw living with him in this big old funeral home. His mama lives in a wheelchair down there where they keep the bodies. Talmadge sells everything but autographed pictures of Jesus on the radio. But I tell you, Miz Dixie Lee Box Crestview, you beat anything I ever even heard of.”
“That a fact?”
“You’re crazy. Bona fide crazy, girl.”
“Well,” Dixie said, “us crazies gotta stick together.” She wheeled off the highway and dropped Stud at Oilers Stadium. “Play good, now, you hear?” she said. “I think I’ll just go tidy up the place. Try to get home early.” Before Stud could say anything, she had spun away in a cloud of dust.
You guys know me as a P. Kael freak so you can imagine how honored I am to be able to reprint one of her reviews–of a fun movie too (Damn, I miss Raul Julia):
The movie is a confluence of fantasies, with a crime plot that often seems to be stalled, as if a projector had broken down. A good melodramatic structure should rhyme: we should hold our breath at the pacing as the pieces come together, and maybe smile at how neat the fit is. Here the pieces straggle, and by the end you’re probably ignoring the plot points. Raul Julia, who turns up as the Mexican Comandante Escalante, has a big, likable, rumbling presence; his role recalls the Leo Carrillo parts in movies like The Gay Desperado, with a new aplomb. And for a few seconds here and there Raul Julia takes over; he’s funny, and he detonates. (The character’s lack of moral conflicts gives his scenes a giddy high.) Then the film’s languor settles in again. An elaborate government sting operation waits while Mac and Escalante play Ping-Pong, and waits again while they sit in a boat and Mac talks drivel about bullfighting. (It’s the worst dialogue in the film; for sheer inappropriateness it’s matched only by Dave Grusin’s aggressive, out-to-slay-you score.)
Most of the dialogue is sprightly—it’s easy, everyday talk that actors can breathe to. But Towne’s directing is, surprisingly, better than his construction—maybe because when he plans to direct he leaves things loose. He says, “I make the character fit the actor, I don’t try to make the actor fit the character.” That sounds as if he’s highly variable, a modernist. But he isn’t. He likes bits from old movies, such as having the cops who are planning to surprise Mac be so dumb that they leave peanut shells wherever they’ve been posted. The difference between the way Towne handles the peanut shells and the way a director of the thirties would have (and did) is that he doesn’t sock the joke home; he glides over it. He wants the effect, yet he doesn’t want to be crude about it, so he half does it. Almost everything in the action scenes of the last three-quarters of an hour is half done. Often he gives you the preparation for action and no follow-through; sometimes the reverse.
Huge thanks to Kael’s daughter, Gina James, for giving me permission to share this with you.
“As far as I’m concerned,” says Mel Brooks, “Harry Ritz was the funniest man ever. His craziness and his freedom were unmatched. There was no intellectualizing with him. You just hoped there were no pointy objects in the room when he was working ’cause you were down on the floor, spitting, out of control, laughing your brains out. Harry Ritz always put me away. Always.”
“This man gave comedy a whole new dimension,” says Sid Caesar. “Harry was the great innovator. His energy and his sensibility opened things up for all of us. He had to be the funniest man of his time.”
“Harry was the teacher,” says Jerry Lewis. “He had the extraordinary ability to deny himself dignity onstage. Harry taught us that the only thing that mattered was getting a laugh—whether you did it with a camel or with two rabbis humping a road map. Harry spawned us all. We all begged, borrowed and stole from him, every one of us. Without him, we wouldn’t be here.”
Almost to a man, comics adore Harry Ritz; they tirelessly tell stories about him, they dissect his style, they imitate his routines. If the world was made up of comedians, Harry Ritz would be the biggest star you ever saw.
But it isn’t, and he’s not. The recognition Harry did receive—as the top banana among the three Ritz Brothers—was relatively scant and short‑lived. During his heyday, in the late thirties and early ’40s, his particular brand of comedy was not thought of as art, and when it came time to list the immortals of that period, no one thought to include Harry’s name among them. Today, 33 years after the Ritz Brothers starred in their last feature film, it is very difficult to find anyone under the age of 40 who has even heard of them.
Here’s a treat for you. From our pal Mark Jacobson comes a 1990 Esquire profile on Jackie Mason. Originally titled “Enough with the Resurrections, Already!” the story appears here with the author’s permission.
As the stretch limo barrels through the bleak winter light up Route 17, Jackie Mason knifes his stubby fingers through the climate-modulated air. “You must be some kind of putz! That is the most idiotic thing I’ve heard in thirty years!” Jackie assails. “Why do you think if a Jewish girl has a big nose she immediately cuts it off? An Italian girl or a gentile from Wyoming, if she has a little extra nose, she won’t slice it off in a second! You think it’s an accident that Jewish girls have more nose jobs?”
“Maybe it’s a generational thing,” I meekly riposte.
Mason rolls his milk-blue eyes. “One jerk-off remark after another! Oh… because you’re so young and I’m so old, I don’t know what I’m talking about? Schmuck! My whole life is chasing twenty-five-year-old girls!” Mason appeals to the others in the pseudoplush vehicle. “You! What do you think?” he queries the radio announcer. “How about you?” he polls the squirrelly insurance purveyor. Assent is immediate, unanimous: To banish a Jewish girl from Bloomingdale’s makeup counter is tantamount to plunging a nail file into her heart. Jackie is right, I am wrong. Mason raises his puff palms to the ceiling. “See!” Case closed. Then he crams a cracker into his mouth, follows it with a grape, and he’s ready for the next topic of discussion.
That’s how it is with Jackie. If you are exhibiting putzlike behavior, entertaining a schmuck concept pertaining to, say, the quality of an Italian restaurant or the relative hand speed of certain prizefighters, or—God forbid—revealing the pathetic liberal tendencies of a typical Jew wussy regarding personages like Jesse Jackson, Jackie is more than willing to sever these woeful afflictions from your person with his howitzering wit. He’s not crazy about the color of your tie either. He doesn’t have to know you very well to dispense these opinions; Jackie’s a gnomish Übermensch, his commentary is universal, available and applicable to all. Once, he buttonholed Strom Thurmond in the Senate dining room and spared the antique former segregationist no quarter on the subject of “underage women.” But Jackie would have done the same to a bum in the street. Populist to the core, he plays no favorites.
The first time you meet him, perhaps backstage, after a show, his shirt off, loose white skin on his tiny, vaguely shaped chest filmed with sweat, Jackie rotates his globular head on an invisible neck, rocks back on his heels, looks you up and down. Are you for me or against me? is the question. The answer is: Who cares? You can be friend for life and he’ll still call you up in the middle of the night to tell you what garbage your dreams are.
With Jackie, there’s always something mies going on. A tumult. People he’s not talking to. Bridges left burned and blown apart like the one over the River Kwai. Today he’s calling one deli owner a “little Hitler” because he wouldn’t give him an extra pickle; tomorrow he’ll be saying another proprietor is a “Mussolini” because he gave him too many pickles. Forget the third place, he’s suing them, or are they suing him? Edgy self-destruction is a recurring theme in Jackie’s remarkable career. How many other entertainment figures have managed, within the space a single decade, to be banished from the big-time airwaves for allegedly giving Ed Sullivan the finger on live national television and to be shot at for repeated public razzing of Frank Sinatra, in Vegas no less. In Miami Beach, a large man warned him to lay off Frank, then broke his nose and crushed his cheekbones. But did that stop Jackie from claiming, in his act, that Ol’ Blue Eyes put his teeth in a glass before he mounted Mia Farrow? You don’t know Jackie.
That Jackie! Can’t accuse him of ducking anyone. Fools may rush in, but they eat Jackie’s dust. He’s around sixty now, but time hasn’t dulled his boyish impulsiveness one bit. This fact was made clear in the 1989 New York mayoral election. Suddenly back from show-biz oblivion, a homegrown Prince of the City due to his Tony Award-winning one-man show, The World According to Me—which he will reprise in October as Jackie Mason: Brand New—Jackie proceeded to embroil himself in much tsores. Acting as Republican Rudolph Giuliani’s “honorary campaign manager,” he was quoted as calling eventual winner David Dinkins, who is black, “a fancy schvartzer with a moustache.” Closely following the racially motivated murder of a black teenager in the nearly all-white section of Bensonhurst, l’affaire du schvartzer dominated the tabloid pages for weeks, sparking much contention, scholarly and otherwise, as to the exact connotation of the Yiddish word (which means literally, black, but is often used in a far more pejorative sense). Under fire, Giuliani, a stern but tongue-tied former D.A., courted jocular Jackie in hopes of winning the pivotal Jewish voting block, unceremoniously jettisoned the comic from his campaign.
Several weeks after this, episode, Jackie’s TV show, Chicken Soup, his supposed “breakthrough” into every gentile’s living room, was canceled. Did the schvartzer business kill the program? inquiring minds wanted to know. To paraphrase the old Yiddish joke, it didn’t help. But really, the show was a turkey, incongruously paired opposite the bulky British earth mother Lynn Redgrave, Jackie tried to affect a schmaltz-dripped Mr. Rogers, all the while kvetching he “hated every moment” of his supposed “breakthrough,” that working on the series was like “being in a gulag.”
* * * * *
“No-good Nazi bastards!” Jackie Mason blurts, nonsequiturously, as the limo whizzes past familiar signposts: LIBERTY. MONTICELLO. SOUTH FALLSBURG. We’re headed for the Pines Hotel. Not too long ago, along with Grossinger’s, the Concord, the Nevele, and dozens of others, the Pines was one of the top-line Alhambras of the Borscht Belt, that idyll-with-pastrami summer world that city-choked Jews built ninety miles from New York, in the Catskill Mountains. Now, however, Grossinger’s is gone, bulldozed for condos. Many others met similar fates. To make it these days, several of the remaining Catskill hotels try to represent themselves as swinging-singles spots, using ads with blond (gentile) bathing beauties as come-ons.
As he will, Jackie blames his coreligionists for the demise of “the mountains.” “They think of the Catskills and go: ‘Too Jewish.’ So they say there’s nothing to do there. They go to an island instead. ‘I went to an island,’ they brag, ‘it was so wonderful, there was nothing to do.’ In the mountains nothing is a calamity, but on an island it’s paradise.” Then, with an unexpected exhale of resignation, Jackie looks out the tinted window. It’s “off-season,” true, but South Fallsburg has the mournful look of one of those towns forgotten now that it’s moved off the main road. “What a dump this place has become,” Jackie reflects.
When he first started as a comic back in the late 1950s, Jackie spent summers in “the Jewish Alps,” doing his fledgling act amid indifferent stints as “social director,” a thankless task he describes as “trying to get Jews out of lawn chairs, an impossibility.” Then, later, after the Sullivan “finger” incident, when mainstream club bookers and television producers wouldn’t touch him due to his reputation as “a filthy comic,” Mason returned. In the goyim-inflected world of the cathode ray, he was an outcast, a pariah. But in “the mountains,” he was welcome. He played everywhere. Jews would always laugh at his famous routines, like the one about the doctors (“Crooks, every last one of them! If they’re not, why are they wearing a mask? And gloves? To hide the fingerprints! You ever wonder why you can’t read the prescription? It’s a code, for the pharmacist. It says, ‘I got my money, you get yours!’”).When he said his family was wrecked in the stock-market crash—“A broker jumped out the window, fell on my father’s pushcart”—he got howls.
As the limo pulls into the Pines driveway, there’s a stir. Maybe the hotel isn’t what it used to be, maybe the legendarily copious food now tastes as if it were hijacked from a dozen airplanes, and the “nightclub” looks like a tatty high school auditorium done up for a Las Vegas night; none of that matters. Tonight there’s an electricity, like the time Eddie Fisher first came up on stage, or Jerry Lewis or a hundred others nervy enough to push themselves to the front of the line and say, “Look at me, not him.” Tonight you could close your eyes and believe you saw Marjorie Morningstar flit across the linoleum dance floor. Tonight is special. Jackie Mason is headlining!
And they come, the “regulars,” faces from a hundred bar mitzvahs, from a thousand photos snapped on Grand Concourse, or in Brooklyn, on Eastern Parkway, before those great boulevards “changed” and people speaking Spanish and playing loud radios took over the lobbies and subway stations. A liver-marked man wearing white shoes says he met Jackie in Atlantic City, a red-rinsed lady remembers him from Eden Roc in Miami. “I saw your act at the Concord before you were anyone,” says one person. “I saw you at Grossinger’s even before that,” another one injects in the spirit of vicious oneupmanship. “At Raleigh’s in 1965!” “In Chicago in 1977!” Then come the pictures. Children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren are pushed under Jackie’s bulbous nose.
“Never fails,” Jackie grouches, later, about the picture pushers. “They’re on me, like a pogrom. Do they think I want to look at the two-year-old kid, naked, upside down on a rug? Who is this two-year-old to me? You got a picture of an eighteen-year-old girl, show me that!” But Jackie doesn’t say that to the picture pushers. He smiles, signs autographs, chats, tumles. Suddenly there’s another Jackie, a gracious, accommodating man emerging from beneath the bluster. It is not an act. True, Jackie remains ready to attack at any moment, tell anyone they are a putz, a moron, a scumbag. But not these people. These people love Jackie Mason. And, down deep, he loves them. After all, he eats what they eat, remembers what they remember, thinks what they think. And they’re happy he’s here, because now, at least for tonight, things will be as they once were.
* * * * *
A few days later, over blintzes in a New York coffee shop, I bring up my reminiscences of the Ed Sullivan incident. Reflexively, Jackie’s hackles rise, his gaze congeals to a bale. This is no surprise. Even though Jackie’s sworn version of the celebrated “You got a finger for me, I’ve got a finger for you” incident has been “proven” to be accurate (on a Barbara Walters 20/20 segment no less—from the tape you can see Mason was mad at Sullivan, but at no time did he extend a middle finger), it is clear the comedian hasn’t completely distanced himself from the most paroxysmal moment of his tempestuous career. “I blame the Jews,” Jackie blurts, two and a half decades later. “The next day every Jew said they saw me do a filthy gesture. There was no filthy gesture. But it made them happy to see a big man wiped out.”
Leaving aside the subtext of this archetypal TV moment—that is, while it would have been impossible to misconstrue someone like Bob Hope, or George Jessel, or even some patent “wild man” like Don Rickles giving the all-powerful Ed Sullivan the finger, the notion of a pushy mocky like Jackie Mason doing it was perfectly believable—I decide to take another tack. “I bet the Sullivan thing was your biggest break at least in the long run.”
That gets Jackie going. His doughy face blushes, his fireplug body rises like a blocky hovercraft above the blintzes, and he’s pacing around the deli. Elderly waiters carrying cups of hot coffee are forced to perform Pirouettes to dodge the bantam star. “Schmuck! How could something that loused up my career for twenty-five years be my biggest break? What kind of morbid bastard are you?”
Actually, I was only trying to help. As Jackie has said, “A Jew assumes every question is answerable, except he’s just not smart enough to know what that answer is.” For Jackie, at least since his “overnight success” on Broadway, the question has been, “Why now? Why, after doing the same thing I’ve been doing for thirty years, should I be a hit?”
Consider, for instance, the historical perspective: 1956, after all, when Jackie Mason first began telling jokes for money at the Pearl Lake Hotel, in Parksville, New York, was another time altogether. Wood-encased Philcos had begun to figure in the furniture scheme of Bronx apartments alongside the plastic-covered sofas, but the Tube hadn’t yet centerpieced itself as the arbiter of American social life. Many of the great Jewish comics, like George Burns, Jack Benny, and Groucho Marx, had already crossed over, regimmicking their well-honed personas to accommodate the new medium. Others, like Milton Berle, Ernie Kovacs, and Sid Caesar, with their most prominent writers, people like Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, were more instrumental in orchestrating the coming idea of a nationwide spectacle. Then there were the stand-ups, tightly wound hand wringers mutated from the line of traditional badchanim, or jesters, the self-deprecating shtetl merrymaker who had been a staple of Jewish cultural life since the Middle Ages. The comic problem confronting these new talkers was unique. On one hand, they worked in the shadow of the Holocaust and tended toward terminally paranoid, postbomb nihilism; on the other, they were living in America, where, for the first time, it seemed, a Jew didn’t have to keep his bags packed, ready to flee in the middle of the night. In America, a Julius Garfinkle might be a John Garfield; a Bernie Schwarz, Tony Curtis. And there was no reason a Yid couldn’t come springing out the suburban screen door like any Ozzie or Harriet. Amid this vertigo of social mobility, however, many Jews, at least those unable to shake a sense of differentness, found it difficult to separate the (Franz) Kafkaesque from the (Norman) Rockwellesque. Doom behind, assimilation ahead: The existential positioning proved endlessly seductive to the bundled anxieties of this new breed of badchanim. Filtering their impressions through the semisubversive urban bohemianism of the time, they couldn’t wait to tell you all about it.
Of these “candy store” comics (many of them actually hung out in candy stores, most prominently Hanson’s in New York), the stand-ups sought to lay claim to various territory. Shelley Berman was the cerebral neurotic, Mort Sahl the urbane political commentator, Buddy Hackett the eye-rolling buffoon, Woody Allen the psychoanalyzed nebbish-cum-bon-vivant. Then there was Lenny Bruce, who put a new spin on hip by attempting, among other things, the de-demonization of ten-letter words like cocksucker through constant repetition.
Jackie Mason was by far the most “Jewish” of these performers. Although much of his material was standard for the day—gibes at the Kennedys, astronaut jokes, et cetera—looking as he looked, talking as he talked, there was nothing else he could be.
Jackie was the most Jewish of Jewish comics because he was the most Jewish to start with. To fans, the saga is familiar: how Eli Maza, once an eminent rabbi of Minsk, in the Polish-Russian Pale, fled the cossack death squads and wound up, with a surrealness peculiar to the refugee’s journey, in Sheyboygan, Wisconsin, which is where Jackie, then Jacob, the youngest of six children, was born. The elder Maza’s idiosyncratic dream of establishing an enduring Orthodox Jewish congregation on the Midwest Tundra soon faded, and the family moved to the corner of Rutgers and Madison streets on New York’s Lower East Side. It was a lot like Poland on the Lower East Side in those days: “At least a Jew can be a Jew here,” Jackie’s father declared. It was a foregone conclusion that each of the four Maza sons would study in the Yeshiva and become great scholars of the Talmud. For Gabe, Joseph, and Bernie, it was easy. Jackie had other ideas. The only Maza child born in America, Jackie was a wholly different species of ethnic. He felt himself on the threshold of a great new font of information and emotion, a place with streets and smells all its own. This was somewhere to walk around in, to look forward to a future in, not the ephemeral product of a dark and mystic fever, where unfathomable codes could only be kept alive in the brooding minds of men without a country. It is some super-Yiddish amalgam of Golden Boy and The Jazz Singer, the sound of Jackie’s father’s voice thundering through the steamy, soot-caked tenement in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge, screaming, “Learn! Study!” and Jackie going through the motions, reading the foreign scrolls, but all he wanted to do was buddy-up with sleekly dressed left-hookers like AI “Bummy” Davis and wisecrack with the cigarette-smoking neighborhood k’nakers.
“Every day my father would scream what an ignoramus I was,” Jackie recalls. “My brothers were so much more brilliant than me, he told me. How could I ever come up to them?” After the steady torrent of boom-box enunciation, Jackie becomes nearly inaudible when he talks about how he first became a cantor, and then a rabbi, just as his three brothers did. He led congregations in properly incongruous locales such as Latrobe, Pennsylvania—Arnold Palmer’s hometown—and Weldon, North Carolina. Jackie provides scant details on these episodes. “The past doesn’t interest me,” he says, looking away. “As for trying to remember everything that ever happened to a person, I see it as sick vanity that leads nowhere.” Not that any of this is a deep dark secret. There’s never been a Jackie Mason press kit that omitted the rabbi angle; you can be walking down the street with Jackie or sitting in a restaurant, and all of a sudden, apropos of nothing, he’ll break out in a hosanna. But this is something Jackie has yet to commit to easy shtick. “I did it all to make my father happy, and it was a very painful thing for me, because it was a complete fake. I wasn’t that person, I was someone else.”
He thought he was a star. He knew he was a star: Even at the Pearl Lake Hotel, moonlighting from his busboy job to open for third-rate tumlers who’d exhaust their mother-in-law gags in the first five minutes and subsist on humiliating members of the audience after that, Jackie was certain he was “one of the funniest Jews in the world.” He resigned the rabbinate, changed his name to Jackie Mason, told jokes full time. From then on, everything clicked. He played the big rooms, made the Jack Paar show, became Ed Sullivan’s favorite comic. Until that night….
His agent, friends, family told him to be patient, it would blow over. Soon enough he’d be back in the top clubs, back on the Tonight show. It didn’t happen that way. Even after Sullivan, who screamed he’d make sure the comic “never got on television again,” publicly apologized and asked Jackie back on his show, it didn’t blow over. Like Jackie says, the story was just too sweet; who wanted to believe Jackie Mason didn’t give Ed Sullivan the finger? Then it was into the late Sixties, a completely different dynamic was afoot, and the immigrant’s drama that Mason personified seemed faintly embarrassing, irrelevant.
He didn’t go broke. Recalling his “dead years,” Jackie says, “People would wonder if I was lying in a gutter, rattling a cup, when I was making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.” But it wasn’t enough. He felt ostracized, an outcast once again. Forever branded as “too Jewish,” he longed to foist his rubber face upon the gentiles, to make them look at him. There were failed Broadway plays, misguided traveling road shows, abortive low-budget movies. The Stoolie, directed by pre-Rocky John Avildsen, a grimy allegory of a local loser, was Jackie’s art picture. It won obscure awards at brand-X film festivals, but, sans jokes, confused the fans who came to laugh, and was met with indifference by everyone else. Most of Jackie’s time in those days was spent trying to induce rich Jews to back his reentry into the big time. Some did not really have money, their own at least. Jackie knew he was walking the nether side, but that didn’t matter. Once, when he was down in Miami playing the Saxony Hotel, Jackie contacted Meyer Lansky, whose son-in-law Mason once utilized as a valet. He asked the myth-shrouded mob genius permission to play his life in a “fictionalized” feature film. Jackie produced the script. Lansky objected to a scene in which his character’s wife gives birth to a child with a clubfoot, then turns to the gangster and says, “This is God’s punishment for your sins,” prompting him to hit her. The film was never made. In 1976, Jackie, with his own money, rented out a decaying boxing arena in Queens, planning to showcase a Vegas-style revue. On opening night it rained. The roof leaked. Umbrellas were opened, but it didn’t help—the sound system didn’t work, no one could hear anything anyhow.
* * * * *
There is a passage in Jackie’s intermittently affecting “autobiography,” Jackie, Oy! in which Mason describes his rabbi father walking down a street on the Lower East Side. “I saw this tragic figure,” Jackie writes, “bent with loneliness, unable to earn enough to feed his family, always with secondhand food in his pocket and secondhand items on his back, taking what charity he could get. Someone gave him a dollar; someone gave him a candle. This tragic figure was my father.” Now Jackie says, “My father lived for an idea. The Talmud was everything to him. It was his life.” Hearing that makes you wonder how Jackie would feel if he saw himself coming out of the New York Deli, walking down 57th Street, wearing not secondhand garments but his usual expensive double-breasted suits and Dior ties. Indeed, there is a melancholy irony in the fact that forty-five years later, Jackie, in a very real way, has filled the role his father used to play for the fresh-from-steerage multitudes. Implicit in Eli Maza’s tirade for his youngest son to “learn” was the notion that he was the heir to a specialized, highly perishable kind of knowledge. Under constant assault from Nazis, cossacks, the relentless churn of the melting pot, and sheer forgetting, what Rabbi Maza knew was a link to another, deeper realm; people needed what he knew, needed to know he knew it. That’s how it is with Jackie, for, as with his father, it seems as if he exists for no other purpose but to deliver his message. Jackie’s message is the Joke.
You take away the Joke and Jackie ceases to exist. He makes a fortune, but doesn’t seem to care very much about money, except in the sense some “sick, phony fuck” might attempt to shyster him out of a nickel. In keeping with the ghetto legacy, he owns no property and doesn’t drive a car. He maintains very little of his former religious life. Aside from an aversion to shrimp (he can’t stand the idea of a fish with feet), he’s not kosher and doesn’t keep the sabbath. He is still close with his family, but says they’ve never really “understood” his life. His brothers—Bernie, the rabbi from Queens, and Joseph, a mohel who, people say, has circumcised half of north Jersey—come to his shows, but Jackie wonders if they “get it.” His manager, the ubiquitous and worshipful Jyll Rosenfeld, acts as his interface with most of the day-to-day humdrum. She picks out almost all his clothes and chose the furniture in the small, spare apartment Jackie has lived in for several years. Once, people say, there was a romantic attachment between the two, but now that’s over. Jackie’s never been married and almost certainly never will be; he’s not interested in children. This is one Jew, at least, who doesn’t seem to care if his line stops here and now. Sure, Jackie will give out his phone number to any blond shiksa under thirty, but as far as he’s concerned the real sex—National Enquirer—hyped paternity suits aside—is to land in front of a crowd and, in his typically embattled phrase, “fight for laughs.”
Laughs he gets. Jackie will lambaste you and call you a limp-wristed putz should you insinuate he is an artist. But of course that is what he is. In his knockabout style: he is a peerless master. Watching him get ready for a show is a trip. He sits in the corner of the room and davens. Knitting his blunt-end fingers through his reddish hair (my mother swears it used to be black), singing in muffled cantonal cadence, he might a well be leading a High Holy Day ceremony, but instead he’s going over a routine about how Leona Helmsley didn’t pay her taxes. Like a hoarding cabalist, he keeps everything in his head. Searching for rhythm—always rhythm—Jackie scans decades of ad libs, offhand remarks, set routines; he’s never said a line he doesn’t remember. You never know when it might come in handy. If something got screams in Vegas ten years ago, no reason it shouldn’t again. But you’ve got to move, stay current. Sure, people like the old favorites, but tell a Jew too many jokes he’s heard before, he’ll be demanding a discount, a refund, an extra ticket for his brother-in-law. So throw in some Donald Trump stuff, a riff about food fads—whatever turns up on CNN. This “neutral” material doesn’t work as well as the mighty Jew-gentile dichotomies, but it’s the flow that counts, the overall onslaught. Jackie will invent a joke on his way up the steps to the stage, juxtapose it to something he’s done for thirty-five years, and wham. Then the urge begins, the rising wave of a life’s work. The little arms gyrate, pumping like a cross between Pete Townshend’s windmill chord and a Navy semaphorist; Yiddishisms bat out the bilingual counterpoint, all of them whack-rolled home with loud, guttural shouts of “Eh? What! You won’t laugh, putz? Then take this! That!” It’s as if he’s on Goring’s neck, gnashing through the windpipe, demanding the laugh before the final gasp.
* * * * *
The package is undeniable, especially if you happen to be a Jew of a certain age. Although Jackie, who is strangely giant in England will often rate the effectiveness of a show by how much the gentiles laugh, he knows it’s the Jews who keep him in business. “I suppose you could say I represent something special to people,” he says, “that my comedy has an element of something that is more personal or more meaningful, more of a thing to them because of their background, or what their family represents, their history. It’s not just an appreciation for my jokes, but a real love in their hearts. You don’t know what you mean to my mother!… My father was saying your jokes when he passed away. It’s like they look at me and they see something in themselves they’re afraid they’re going to lose, or maybe they’ve already lost. I feel almost a desperation in their love for me.”
Because of Sullivan, he got frozen out of the culture, and while everything else got homogenized, he stayed the way he was, a Jew in amber. The personal diaspora he experienced after the Sullivan incident was really his salvation, I expound, his exile the key to his comeback. For even if it’s quite possible that the “finger” scene was an accident waiting to happen, that the Jackie Mason who defied his imposing father couldn’t wait to assault—and be crushed by an authority figure like Big Ed Sullivan, you can still imagine Jackie’s career going a very different way. It’s conceivable that, accent and all, he’d have been offered some lame Chicken Soup-type show in 1968, or 1974, and, with its success, been domesticated into a Hebrew version of Jimmie Walker, or a haimish Freddie Prinze. Jackie could have crossed over into a realm of mass cuddliness; who knows, he might have gone all the way to canonization as a Beloved Entertainer, in the manner of his great idol, Jack Benny. But that’s not what happened. He was kept out, branded “filthy” and/or “too Jewish,” barred from the trend of the past two and a half decades. In many ways, you can say, he stayed as he was in 1960, that in him you can still sense the same unresolved identity/assimilation conflict that made the stand-ups of his generation so compelling. Now, long after Lenny Bruce (who made himself into the half-mad Jewish Lear, reading his indictments from the stage) fell onto a bathroom floor with a needle in his arm, years past the time dozens of lounge-rat Shecky Greenes and Alan Kings have dissipated whatever marginal emotional force they once possessed, Jackie Mason remains to tell thee, full of spite and bile perhaps, but still a link to a brawnier, more expansive time, a living ethnosaur.
Truly, Jackie is one of a kind. This doesn’t mean that in terms of raw talent he exceeds Robin Williams or Steve Martin, or that you can’t find bigger laughs elsewhere. It’s just that Jackie has something the hundred haircut-intensive comics on HBO specials whose only background appears to be Saturday-morning television can never match, no matter how facile or “outrageous” they may be. How “outrageous” are they anyway? Would Andrew “Dice” Clay ever give Arsenio Hall the finger, even if half his act puts down blacks? Is he that ballsy, ready to put his real shit on the line? No way. We’re all brothers in the Business, bro. Indeed, next to Jackie, the work of Rodney Dangerfield, Mason’s great, hated rival (“a low-class bigmouth who can’t wait to louse me up on every street corner”), is reduced to a hilarious but ultimately gimmick-ridden and dispassionate series of one-liners. That’s because Jackie Mason is from somewhere. A specific somewhere—when he went to Israel, they didn’t buy the act, he wasn’t their kind of Jew. Jackie comes out of a singular, fleeting American experience. In this day and age, that is something to covet, even desperately.
* * * * *
That, more or less, is the good news. But it doesn’t stop there, for every ethnosaur has his flip side. What I mean is, after four or five nights in a row of hanging with Jackie and the gang, you can feel things begin to go blooey. In fact, you can feel yourself traveling…through another dimension…back to…a Brooklyn apartment with dark wood furniture, and there you are, standing with your older relatives, looking out a seventh-story window, down to a body below, a man sprawled across the asphalt, blood seeping from his ruined head…and you know…everyone’s wondering: Was it a Jew?
Jew-Jew-Jew: It’s such a Jewish thing. That’s how it is with Jackie. Sit with him and his crew of walk-around guys—the New jersey theater owner, the Long Island real estate magnate, the trumpet player who makes “real human voices” come out of his horn—and count how many times the word Jew comes up. You’ll hit triple figures before the second course. “Them and Us” is the theme. You try to dismiss the self-referentiality as typical of the exile to say every ethnic group does the same thing. But it wears you down. It freaks you out.
For many, much of the uneasiness they feel when confronted by Jackie Mason is exacerbated by the comedian’s recent status as a Public Hebrew. Since his comeback, Jackie, never one to know his place, has rebelled against the confining definition of “entertainer.” Now he’s a “spokesman.” In this mode, Jackie has become something of a regular on the Washington lecture-brunch-Bible-reading-schmooze circuit. He’s done fundraisers for senators like Rudy Bauschwitz of Minnesota and Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania. He pals around with Howard Metzenbaum. Frank Lautenberg, AI D’Amato, and Paul Simon are also friends. Given this mixed crew, Jackie’s own political views tend toward the eclectic. Although he now privately says he’s against settlement on the West Bank (Israel is the only issue he won’t touch onstage—the reaction of his core audience scares even him), he’s been an on-and-off supporter of the lunatic Meir Kahane, a vociferous racist. And even though Jackie spent a large portion of his World According to Me show knocking the Reagan administration, his “scrapbook” contains a note from Oliver North thanking Mason for inviting him to the comic’s Kennedy Center show. North had to decline, he said, because “as you know, I have been quite busy with the sentencing process.” When asked if it bothers him that several pols might see him as nothing more than a “house Jew” to worm money and votes, much in the fashion that Nixon used to drag Wilt Chamberlain around to show his “strength” in the black community, Jackie shrugs. “Politics is my hobby,” he says. “I like to see how these people operate. If they’re using me, I’m using them.”
Anyway, it’s municipal affairs that are really Jackie’s passion. New York is his town: A semiserious mayoral candidate in 1973, he likes to “participate in the life of the city.” He has written several columns for the Times op-ed page, most recently about his trip to Eastern Europe. Jackie saw no advantage in American freedom of the press, since “everyone in New York is afraid to go out to buy the paper.” It was the 1989 mayoral race in which Jackie really made a difference, though. In fact, some analysts are of the opinion that without Jackie’s now-infamous “fancy schvartzer” reference, the Republican Giuliani, who wound up losing by less than 3 percent in a town where Democrats represent more than 75 percent of registered voters, would have won. Bill Lynch, David Dinkins’s campaign manager and now a city deputy mayor, first attempts to downplay the effect of Mason’s comments, then offers a smile and allows, “You could say it was a turning point in the election.”
Others are less politic: They say it was the turning point, that Jackie’s crack and the uproar following it went a long way toward destroying Giuliani’s carefully constructed image as an unbiased crime fighter to whom color did not matter.
Mason’s schvartzer gaffe played right into the corrosive tension between the black and Jewish communities in New York; for many it was the perfect companion piece to Jesse Jackson’s similarly alienating “Hymietown” reference in the 1984 presidential campaign—both men casually uttered the fateful phrases to “friendly” newsmen and then claimed they never imagined the depth of the offense that would be taken. The unfortunately coiffed Giuliani could have avoided the whole snafu, however, if only he and his equally asleep-at-the-switch advisers had played a tape of Mason’s memorable performance at the 1988 Grammy Awards. Jackie managed to stop the show cold by telling jokes about blacks breaking into cars and white people lying on the beach attempting to turn black. Taken one at a time, none of the lines were particularly objectionable, but the sheer weight of them, one after another, told to a mixed, moderately hip crowd a lot more interested in Terence Trent D’Arby than Jackie Mason made for the kind of slow death only a truly bombing comic can generate.
Jackie will tell you he’s not a racist. He’ll say he didn’t mean anything by the schvartzer comment, that it only means black and what else do you call a black but black. He’ll even make you laugh trying to convince you of his innocence. When he starts in on the “Giuliani tsimmes,” describing how everyone was arguing about what he meant—“Did he say schvartza? Did he say schvartzo? Where did this word come from? Did it come from Russia? From Pittsburgh?”—it’s almost impossible to maintain a disapproving look. Much of his counterattack is launched against his Jewish accusers, the same “snooty intellectuals” Jackie has always felt saw him as “too Jewish,” a “vulgar sort of embarrassment who deals only in stereotypes.” For Mason, who has long claimed that the same types who sneer at Jerry Lewis will go crazy over the exact joke told by Woody Allen, this is a class issue, pure and simple, and he responds to it in his usual combative fashion. After the schvartzer incident, during a show at the Public Theatre, Jackie called Elie Wiesel, the famous Holocaust historian and a prominent Mason detractor, “a putz.” That really shook them up; in certain circles, giving Ed Sullivan the finger, even labeling David Dinkins a schvartzer, is one thing, but calling Elie Wiesel a putz is a whole other kettle of gefilte.
But you can tell, Jackie just doesn’t get it. To this day he insists the schvartzer comment was a joke, that he’s a comedian, nothing else. Despite the racially tense situation in the city and the presence of Roger Ailes, who invented Willie Horton for George Bush, as Giuliani’s media consultant, Jackie refuses to entertain the idea that the context in which his remark was made had anything to do with the reaction to it. It’s all unfair, he rails, another sandbag job like the Sullivan thing. Why don’t they talk about all the money he’s given to the NAACP, or write how he went to Selma in the 1960s? A day later, he’ll be riding in a limo through the South Bronx, telling you even if he was received at the Grammys “like Hitler at a bar mitzvah,” it had nothing to do with the content of what he said. “I stunk, that’s all. It wasn’t funny. I just looked at all those black faces and I froze. I lost my place, so I stunk.” Then, after swearing he’s played black places and “gotten screams” with the same material, he looks out the window and exclaims, “Look at how they live!” A couple of days after that, at Madison Square Garden to receive a special commendation as the “Mayor of Broadway,” as part of a special wrestling show the cops were putting on for handicapped children, Jackie bounds into the ring, looks out into the crowd of primarily minority kids in wheelchairs, lords his hands over his head like a champ, and shouts, “Only Jew in the house.”
That’s the wrench of being with Jackie. Everything you like about him is inextricably tangled with stuff you hate, things you wish got left at the door. And for me, that’s a deep thing, because if Jackie’s great value as a comic is being from somewhere, I’m from that same somewhere, to a large extent. Besides, I know that my grandmother, a Jew who was smuggled out of Romania in a potato sack by her father just ahead of the coming pogrom, would likely agree with Jackie Mason about most things. If she were alive today, she’d be threatened by blacks and others just the way he is. I’m sure of it. Once she lived at the corner of Franklin Avenue and Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. It was the greatest of treats to get to stay with her. My grandfather took me to baseball games at Ebbets Field. Carl Erskine pitched a no-hitter on my birthday one year. But then they tore down Ebbets Field, my grandfather died, and my grandmother couldn’t live on Eastern Parkway anymore or work in the Kameo children’s store, she was an old lady and all around her were young black people who made her afraid. I loved her, but it killed me, hearing her say things about blacks and Latinos, to know her fear was on the verge of something worse, and how all-consuming it was.
That’s why a guy like Jackie Mason can mess you up. He’s so much like those people I used to see on Passover, eating those flavorless crackers, speaking in foreign tongues. He’s a vicarious trip back to that evanescent shadow world, except he won’t allow you to bask in the unsullied nostalgic haze. He’s constantly shoving real darkness into your face. One minute he’s telling you Nelson Mandela is “a schmuck,” lambasting Tutu. The next you’re in a taxi buzzing down to Ratner’s, the ancient, faded dairy restaurant, and suddenly three hundred people are rising as one, screaming “Jackie! Jackie!” the matzo brei on the house, everyone telling jokes, and you’re thinking: This is fabulous. This is the Runyonesque New York I love, not the place worn to the nub by the yuppies and a grind of poverty and race hatred. And you know, it’s a problem, one of those conundrums Jackie claims a Jew must have the answer to except he’s not smart enough to think of it.
I tell Jackie this, and he just starts screaming. As far as he’s concerned, I’m just another one of those liberal-putz, self-hating, bleeding-heart Jews who don’t know which side their bread is buttered on. Giving “everything” away to the blacks is tonight’s topic. Jackie’s against it. “When’s the last time a Jew ever asked a black for a handout?” he demands. “Has a black ever given a Jew a quarter?”
“There are other people in the world besides Jews and blacks,” I counter.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he screams back. There is no winning. You have two alternatives: You either keep arguing, keep playing the game, or you tell him he’s pathetic and you can’t stomach his chauvinist bile, that it’s exactly the sort of shit your parents brought you up to understand as pernicious, evil. Then you can walk out, leaving him with the check.
Faced with that choice…I dunno…I stay. Maybe I stay because we’re having this fight in Kiev, a little hangout on the Lower East Side, and it’s 4:00 in the morning, and the place is packed with blacks and Latinos, and weirdos of all types, and one of them, a guy wearing a dress, with a hundred hospital bracelets around his wrist, is leaning over our table, and he smells like hell, but Jackie keeps talking to him, asking tender questions about the guy’s ravaged life. He does this, he says, because face-to-face, Jackie Mason might scream and yell at you, but he doesn’t have the heart to turn his back.
And maybe I stay because a few nights later we’re in a car, going to a synagogue in Queens. For weeks Jackie’s been “practicing” the new jokes he plans to use when he returns to Broadway in the fall. A shul is as good a place as any to practice, he says. A week before, he was down in Atlantic City, where he gets as much as $65,000 a show. But tonight, everything is free. The temple, you can tell, is not exactly flush. The president, who picks us up, is still wearing his car service chauffeur’s uniform. Jackie doesn’t care, $65,000 or nothing, it’s all the same to him, as long as he’s standing in front of an audience, “fighting for laughs.” Not that he’s pleased when we get to the shul. The neighborhood is “on the cusp,” the temple doesn’t even have enough money to buy the rabbi a house. Most of the richer congregation members have long ago moved to Florida. “Old Jews,” Jackie grouses as we get out of the car, “I can’t stand these old Jews. They don’t get the jokes, if they do they’re offended. What a waste of time this is!” He keeps complaining even as the rabbi, a small man in his seventies, comes over to shake his hand. Usually, the rabbi says, they have trouble getting a minyan, but tonight is different. Jackie Mason is here! Tonight, as many as fifty people might show up.
Then, it’s the same as always. Stooped, gray-haired men and women approach, bearing photos of grandchildren, great-grandchildren. “I’ve seen you before,” a woman says. “Everyone’s seen him before,” chides her husband. “Oy gevalt,” Jackie says. But then you can tell: He’s nervous. Getting ready to stand up in front of these broken-down Jews, in this broken-down temple, Jackie Mason, international sensation, is nervous. Soon, however, he’s in front of the tabernacle, wearing a yarmulke, telling his jokes, mixing the old ones with the new. “I’d like you to know this is the longest a Jew has ever sat still without a piece of cake,” Jackie says. “You have to watch out for Jews on cake. A Jew on cake is more dangerous than a gentile on crack any day.” Now Jackie’s happy. His fight plan is working; they like him. He sees the opening, so he pours it on, brings out the doctor routine, follows it with his number about Jews suing everyone. “A Jew wakes up in the morning and thinks, Who can I sue?”
When he’s on, there’s no mercy. You’ve got to give it up. I give it up. When we got to the temple, I realized I’d been there before, with my grandmother, after she’d moved away from Brooklyn. The temple’s right around the corner from where she used to live. She’d go there every once in a while and pray. I figure if she was sitting in that audience, she might be tough, because she was never an easy laugh, but eventually Jackie would get to her. He’d make her laugh. Should I do less?
Louis Armstrong, summoned by King Oliver, came up to Chicago in the summer of 1922, Buster Bailey reports that “Louis upset Chicago. All the musicians came to hear Louis. What made Louis upset Chicago so? His execution, for one thing, and his ideas, his drive. Well, they didn’t call it drive, they called it ‘attack’ at the time. Yes, that’s what it was, man. They got crazy for his feeling.”
His feeling. Even toward the end of his life, when many of the same tunes would be played night after night, month after month, Louis could still, as trombonist Trummy Young remembers, make a sideman cry.
His feeling. Billie Holiday, a young girl in Baltimore, listening to Louis’s recordings: “He didn’t say any words, but somehow it just moved me so. It sounded so sad and sweet, all at the same time. It sounded like he was making love to me. That’s how I wanted to sing.”
There has been no jazz musician so widely, deeply, durably influential as Louis. And no trumpet player who could do all he could do on the horn. Once, Louis told journalist Gilbert Millstein, “I’m playin’ a date in Florida, livin’ in the colored section and I’m playin’ my horn for myself one afternoon. A knock come on the door and there’s an old, gray-haired flute player from the Philadelphia Orchestra, down there for his health. Walking through that neighborhood, he heard this horn, playing Cavalleria Rusticana, which he said he never heard phrased like that before. To him it was as if an orchestra was behind it.”
Peter Richmond is a good man, loyal friend, and a gifted writer. Here he is at his best, writing about his father for GQ in December of 1993. The article was the genesis of Richmond’s beautiful memoir, My Father’s War: A Son’s Journey.
He survived Guadalcanal, and then New Britain, and then Peleliu, and came home in 1944 to take over the family business, manufacturing paper bags in a gray factory next to the railroad tracks in Long Island City. He married the woman who would become my mother and moved to Westchester County, and died in 1960, at the age of 44, when I was 7, so I never had much of a chance to ask him about his war.
But it was always there. I could hold it to my face. My father’s war was tucked into the trunk that sat in the darkest corner of the cellar: a Japanese flag, stained with Rorschach blotches of blood, the red circle still bright, the field of white crowded with the Japanese characters that identified the man whose blood graced it.
As a child, I spent a lot of time with the flag, running it through my hands, marveling at the liquid feel of the silk, at how different it was from the rest of my father’s memorabilia: the .30-caliber Japanese machine gun, the Japanese hand grenade, the rifles–all of them so inconceivably heavy and redolent of good grease and iron that I knew they carried the real weight of war.
The latest reprint over at the Beast is a rich piece of ’60′s pop culture criticism from the inimitable Seymour Krim. All about Jack Kerouac:
As an Outsider, then, French Canadian, Catholic (“I am a Canuck, I could not speak English till I was 5 or 6, at 16 I spoke with a halting accent and was a big blue baby in school though varsity basketball later and if not for that no one would have noticed I could cope in any way with the world and would have been put in the madhouse for some kind of inadequacy…”), but with the features and build of an all-American prototype growing up in a solid New England manufacturing town, much of Kerouac’s early life seems to have gone into fantasy and daydreams which he acted out. (“At the age of 11 I wrote whole little novels in nickel notebooks, also magazines in imitation of Liberty Magazine and kept extensive horse racing newspapers going.”) He invented complicated games for himself, using the Outsider’s solitude to create a world—many worlds, actually—modeled on the “real” one but extending it far beyond the dull-normal capacities of the other Lowell boys his own age. Games, daydreams, dreams themselves—his Book of Dreams (1961) is unique in our generation’s written expression—fantasies and imaginative speculations are rife throughout all of Kerouac’s grownup works; and the references all hearken back to his Lowell boyhood, to the characteristically American small-city details (Lowell had a population of 100,000 or less during Kerouac’s childhood), and to what we can unblushingly call the American Idea, which the young Jack cultivated as only a yearning and physically vigorous dreamer can.
That is, as a Stranger, a first-generation American who couldn’t speak the tongue until he was in knee pants, the history and raw beauty of the U.S. legend was more crucially important to his imagination than it was to the comparatively well-adjusted runny-noses who took their cokes and movies for granted and fatly basked in the taken-for-granted American customs and consumer goods that young Kerouac made into interior theatricals. It is impossible to forget that behind the 43-year-old Kerouac of today lies a wild total involvement in this country’s folkways, history, small talk, visual delights, music and literature—especially the latter; Twain, Emily Dickinson, Melville, Sherwood Anderson, Whitman, Emerson, Hemingway, Saroyan, Thomas Wolfe, they were all gobbled up or at least tasted by him before his teens were over (along with a biography of Jack London that made him want to be an “adventurer”); he identified with his newfound literary fathers and grandfathers and apparently read omnivorously. As you’ll see, this kind of immersion in the literature of his kinsmen—plunged into with the grateful passion that only the children of immigrants understand—was a necessity before he broke loose stylistically; he had to have sure knowledge and control of his medium after a long apprenticeship in order to chuck so much extraneous tradition in the basket when he finally found his own voice and risked its total rhythm and sound.
A producer who last year was toying with the idea of making a television series featuring my private detective Lew Archer asked me over lunch at Perino’s if Archer was based on any actual person. “Yes,” I said. “Myself.” He gave me a semi-pitying Hollywood look. I tried to explain that while I had known some excellent detectives and watched them work, Archer was created from the inside out. I wasn’t Archer, exactly, but Archer was me.
The conversation went downhill from there, as if I had made a damaging admission. But I believe most detective-story writers would give the same answer. A close paternal or fraternal relationship between writer and detective is a marked peculiarity of the form. Throughout its history, from Poe to Chandler and beyond, the detective hero has represented his creator and carried his values into action in society.
Comedy is about timing, faultless timing. It’s not so much what the story is about, but the way it is told, with its twists and surprises, that makes it humorous. Keaton draws a hook with chalk on the wall and hangs his coat on it. A brat in the theater drops his half-sucked lollipop from the balcony on an elegant lady in a box who picks it up and uses it as a lorgnette. The hangman uses a blindfold intended for the victim to polish the medal on his jacket. The shorts, especially, are full of such wild inventions. No other silent-film comic star was as ingenious.
Among hundreds of examples from Keaton’s films, one of my favorites comes from the short Cops. At the annual New York City policemen’s parade, Buster and his horse and wagon find themselves in the midst of the marching cops. Buster wants to light a cigarette, and is searching his pockets for matches, when a bomb thrown by an anarchist from a rooftop lands next to him on the seat with its short fuse already sizzling. There’s a pause, “an inspiring pause,” as Twain says, building itself to a deep hush. When it has reached its proper duration, Buster picks up the bomb absentmindedly, lights his cigarette with it as if this were the most normal thing to do, and throws it back over his head.
The short Cops is paradigmatic Keaton. Again, the plot is simplicity itself. In the opening scene we see Buster behind bars. The bars turn out to belong to the garden gate of the house of a girl he is in love with. “I won’t marry you till you become a businessman,” she tells him. Off he goes, through a series of adventures, first with a fat police detective in a rush to grab a taxi, the contents of whose wallet end up in Buster’s hands. Next, he is conned by a stranger who sells him a load of furniture on the sidewalk, pretending he is a starving man being evicted. The actual owner of the furniture and his family are simply moving to another location. When Buster starts to load the goods into the wagon he has just bought, the owner mistakes him for the moving man they’ve been expecting. His trip across town through the busy traffic culminates when he finds himself at the head of the police parade passing the flag-draped reviewing stand where the chief of police, the mayor, and the young woman he met at the garden gate are watching in astonishment. Still, the crowd is cheering, and he thinks it’s for him. After he tosses the anarchist’s bomb and it explodes, all hell breaks loose. “Get some cops to protect our policemen,” the mayor orders the chief of police. People run for cover, the streets empty, the entire police force takes after the diminutive hero.
What an irony! Starting with love and his desire to better himself and impress the girl he adores, all he gets in return is endless trouble. It’s the comic asymmetry between his extravagant hope and the outcome that makes the plot here. The early part of the movie, with its quick shuffle of gags, gives the misleading impression of a series of small triumphs over unfavorable circumstances. Just when Buster thinks he has his bad luck finally conquered, disaster strikes again. The full force of law and order, as it were, descends on his head. Innocent as he is, he is being pursued by hundreds of policemen. Whatever he attempts to do, all his stunts and clever evasions, come to nothing because he cannot outrun his destiny. After a long chase, he ends up, unwittingly, at the very door of a police precinct. The cops are converging on him from all sides like angry hornets, blurring the entrance in their frenzy to lay their nightsticks on him, but incredibly Buster crawls between the legs of the last cop, he himself now dressed in a policeman’s uniform. Suddenly alone on the street, he pulls a key out of his pocket, locks the precinct’s door from the outside, and throws the key into a nearby trashcan. At that moment, the girl he is smitten with struts by. He looks soulfully at her, but she lifts her nose even higher and walks on. Buster hesitates for a moment, then goes to the trashcan and retrieves the key. “No guise can protect him now that his heart has been trampled on,” Gabriella Oldham says in her magnificent study of Keaton’s shorts. At the end of the film, we see him unlocking the door and being pulled by hundreds of policemen’s hands into the darkness of the building.
What makes Keaton unforgettable is the composure and dignity he maintains in the face of what amounts to a deluge of misfortune in this and his other films. It’s more than anyone can bear, we think. Still, since it’s the American Dream Buster is pursuing, we anticipate a happy ending, or at least the hero having the last laugh. That’s rarely the case. Keaton’s films, despite their laughs, have a melancholy air. When a lone tombstone with Buster’s porkpie hat resting on it accompanies the end in Cops, we are disconcerted. The images of him running down the wide, empty avenue, of his feeble attempt to disguise himself by holding his clip-on tie under his nose to simulate a mustache and goatee, are equally poignant. Let’s see if we can make our fate laugh, is his hope. Comedy at such a high level says more about the predicament of the ordinary individual in the world than tragedy does. If you seek true seriousness and you suspect that it is inseparable from laughter, then Buster Keaton ought to be your favorite philosopher.
It is early morning in Miami, still dark, black water lapping at the dock overlooking Biscayne Bay. But here in this cold, cranky bloodshot hour that so injures a sportswriter’s metabolism, Pat Riley is undaunted, optimistic. “Fresh as a fucking daisy,” his forlorn assistants used to grumble as they disembarked from all those red-eyes. Riley’s come to chase the dawn. He sits on the concrete dock, not his dock, but a backdrop he’s chosen to heighten the dramatic effect, anticipating in his own supercharged way the new day, the new season. He’s maximizing the metaphor. There will be sunrise, rebirth, even redemption. “Gonna be great,” he says.
I groan, as enthused by all this predawn energy as by the headless, hardened baitfish on which I’ve been sitting.
Almost two decades have passed since Pat Riley chased the dawn with such purpose. That was back on State Beach in Santa Monica. Riley was morose and mournful, an exile wandering the beach with a bushy beard. He was 31, at the end of a nine-year career in the National Basketball Association, a journeyman who lacked a guard’s skill and a forward’s size, a 6-foot-4 white guy who had to bust his ass just to stay around, whose greatest talent—no, make that virtue—was to beat the shit out of Jerry West in practice. For Pat Riley the ballplayer, everything came the hard way, even the belated discovery that the game he loved was a cruel mistress. She didn’t say thanks. Or goodbye. And she really didn’t care how much you busted your ass.
“I was hanging out, all pissed off, writing everything down on legal pads,” he says. “600 pages of verbal diarrhea blaming everybody for my… demise.”
He winces with the remembrance. He and his wife, Chris, had driven to the beach in a ‘76 Chevy van with chrome pipes snaking out from under the chassis. For three days, husband and wife huddled under blankets, waiting for dawn’s early light. And for three mornings, Santa Monica remained shrouded in fog.
“Everything happened so quick,” he says. “I don’t think of myself as old, but here I am, 50. And I gotta deal with that. 14 years ago, I walked into the Laker locker room as head coach. Today, my daughter is seven. It’s like you wake up and say, What the hell happened? How did Elisabeth get to be seven? I do think I missed a lot, living in this game. But I’ll tell you what, I’ve never been around anything that made me feel so fucking alive.”
He spits into the wind. Like a ballplayer. Like his father, the baseball minor-leaguer, must have once spat.
“If my dad were alive, I could see him taking out a bucket of range balls—you know, he never played a course, but he kept a bucket of these old cut, beat-up range balls in the car—and he’d just hit ‘em into the water. Plop. Plop. Plop.”
Riley recalls the dapper manager of the Schenectady Blue Jays, the “hard-ass dad” to whom he so often refers with rage and rebellion, regret and respect. “I think I’ve come to terms with that. With him,” he says. But the voice of Lee Riley is always there, like a rude wind in his ear, even at the edge of this tropical metropolis, at the outset of yet another season. The son can imagine him turning from the tee, spitting, looking him in the eye, telling the youngest of his six kids: “You don’t know how good you got it, Pat.”
With all these years between father and son, between State Beach and Biscayne Bay, Pat Riley is someone his old man could never have imagined. He stands to make almost $40 million in his new job, running the Miami Heat. Amid a culture of mutinous millionaires, he’s kept his authority intact, almost unchallenged. And in doing so, he’s become the best coach in professional basketball, maybe any sport. He’s the winningest, the richest, the coolest. As his coiffure went from Sonny Bono to Gordon Gekko, Riley metamorphosed into a star, the guy who gave coaching some sex appeal. Corporate honchos pay $45,000 a pop to hear him lecture about his book, The Winner Within. He’s the new-age Lombardi, a salesman with a fanatic heart who speaks in dialects that seem derived in equal measure from General Schwarzkopf and Shirley MacLaine. Still, he’s just a few months removed from the first great wound to his image—inflicted, perhaps self-inflicted, during his acrimonious parting from the New York Knicks. Pat Riley left town tagged by the sporting press with a designer label of his own invention: “The Disease of Me.”
The horizon is transforming now, from black to light. Riley sips an herbal mint tea. I’ve finished my coffee but still struggle to wake. It’s Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and the sour taste of last night’s seminar at the sports bar is grabbing at the clench in my throat. This is not what I had in mind for the High Holy Days, watching Riley worship the sun at the crack of dawn.
“Shana tova,” Riley says haltingly.
“What priest taught you that?”
“My lawyer. He says, ‘Riley, shana tova.’ I say. ‘What’s that mean?’ He says, ‘It’s gonna be a happy, healthy new year.’ I figure, Damn right. It’s gonna be a helluva year.”
At 12 minutes past seven, the sun erupts against the horizon, beginning its skyward sprint.
“Wow,” says the coach. “Look at that sumbitch go.”
* * * *
On the morning of her seventh birthday, Elisabeth Riley is presented with strawberry pancakes topped with whipped cream and a batch of cupcakes to be shared with her classmates. She has a new hat, which she uses to hide her eyes and her smile. Daddy wants a birthday kiss, but Elisabeth won’t budge. It’s all very cute, but also enough to make you feel for the poor guy who’ll show up at the door one day and say, “Coach, I’m here to take Elisabeth to the prom.”
“She gets kind of shy,” Riley explains. “She doesn’t want to kiss Daddy in front of a stranger.”
There’s a tug at my arm. James Patrick Riley, age 10, wants to show me his room, his dazzling array of on-line electronics beneath an autographed picture of Macaulay Culkin. There are laptops and PCs, digital games and a synthesizer. The boy is already fluent in the language of computers and music. There’s an awkward moment as Riley enters. It’s one thing to answer questions about rebounding and defense; it’s another to allow the interrogator into your home.
As James explains his place in the World Wide Web and his designs for computer chips, Riley makes his way to the synthesizer, touching the keys gingerly. I’ve never seen him so close to awe. When he speaks, it’s to no one in particular: “James has a different thing than his daddy. James will be different than I am. But that’s okay. That’s fine. That’s good.”
Somehow, Riley’s been made to feel grateful, maybe even liberated. This slight, sandy-haired boy has, in his own way, broken the chain, the tug and the tether that existed between the fathers and sons in this coach’s clan.
I see a different Riley in his son’s room that day. It reminds me of what a friend said about him, someone who had known him as both enemy and ally. “What you don’t understand about Pat,” the friend said, “is what it was like to be poor and Irish in the 50’s, what it was like if your father drank too much. You only showed your best face to the world. Whatever happened in the home stayed there.”
Leon Francis Riley was a ballplayer, too. In 1944, in the middle of a war, the Philadelphia Phillies finally brought him up to the bigs, where he hit a double in 12 at bats. He was already 38. But he still stayed around. “In 22 years, he gets a cup of coffee and a promise that they’d give him the next coaching job that opened up in the big leagues,” says Riley. “He gets passed over, and he just says, ‘That’s it.’ He went home and burned everything that had to do with his baseball career. I never got a fucking thing.”
It wasn’t long before the old man was full of drink and despair. “The 50’s,” says Riley, “were hell.” But the hellishness remained behind closed doors.
Riley was nine, hiding in the garage and weepy from a schoolyard stomping, when the old man demanded that his kid return to the park, that he learn “not to be afraid,” and that he learn it the hard way. So began his apprenticeship as a tough guy and a small-town basketball star.
The old man wouldn’t sit in the stands to watch his son play for Linton High School in Schenectady, New York. Rather, he’d peer through the crack in the gym door. Riley never even knew he was there until the day a ref whistled him for a charge. All of a sudden, his father staggered out onto the floor. He’d been drinking. Turned out the ref used to umpire games in the old Can-Am League.
“You son of a bitch!” the father screamed. “When you were calling baseball games, you were trying to screw me, too. Now my kid… you son of a bitch!”
“I guess it just kind of crashed for him,” says Riley.
Eventually, the father sobered up and came to gentler terms with his son. But the dapper Irishman of Riley’s youth finished as a janitor at Bishop Gibbons High School. At Pat’s urging, he coached the school baseball team, but only on the condition that he take the field in the green custodial outfit he wore to swab urinals and scrub toilets. “Years later, a lot of those kids he coached told me how much he did for them,” says Riley. “But I think they did something for him, too. Those last years he spent managing in his janitor’s outfit, I think those were the happiest in his life.”
He died in 1970, as Riley was desperately trying to hang on with an expansion team, the Portland Trail Blazers. The way he remembers it, the last thing his father told him was: “Plant your feet, and kick some ass.”
Riley would go on to kick a lot of ass. But no matter what—the accumulation of championships or money or fame—it was never enough to silence the voice that kept telling him, Go back to the park.
“I guess all that has a lot to do with how I am, the Irish part. I guess that’s why I have a hard time letting anyone in,” he says. “We kept it in the family. Whatever problems we had in the family didn’t go out. And it should be the same way with the team.”
Riley guards the interiors of his life in ways both Nixonian and noble. His is a necessary strategy for the rich and famous. But more than that, he considers his family a team and his team a family. Riley, of course, would be the patriarch of both. If this coach had theme music, it would be “We Are Family” set to bagpipes. He divides the world into friends and strangers, us and them. “It’s okay to hurt,” he says. “You just can’t let them see you hurting.”
* * * *
For the first time, though, you can sense the wound. He’s still in control, as it were, but ill humors now surface when he speaks of them back in New York. His feelings are hurt.
“In 28 years in this game,” he says, “I had never been tainted. Now I don’t care how they finish me off in New York. But questioning my character? That pisses me off. I’m embarrassed by what happened. As a coach, I’m embarrassed.”
Yes, it ended badly for him in New York, and, yes, most of us in the press box will be finishing him off for some time. But to understand how bad the end was, understand first how well it began.
The Knicks had spent too many years as a tired joke in a city whose fans still reveled in their belief that they were the game’s true connoisseurs. Now enter the coach with the hair and the clothes. That’s how it started. Riley had won four championships with the Lakers of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but no one understood how good he was. And if it weren’t for the Knicks, no one ever would.
There was a particular type of ballplayer—hungry and a bit angry—who blossomed under Riley. There was Anthony Mason, a rebel bruiser who’d grown up in the cracked-up, 9mm culture of southeast Queens and served his basketball time in such remote purgatories as Venezuela and Turkey. And there was John Starks, not far removed from a stint bagging groceries at a Safeway in Tulsa. The Knicks would never be the Lakers, but by unleashing the snarling talents of guys like Mason and Starks, Riley got them good fast.
The Knicks went at other teams the way their coach had gone at Jerry West. Just as Riley once jumped center for Adolph Rupp at Kentucky, for a team known to posterity as Rupp’s Runts, the Knicks could be considered Riley’s Runts. What they lacked in talent, they made up in heart, hustle, and hard work. At the same time, the Knicks evolved unlike any other pro team, their identity derived not from their star players but from their star coach.
There were more than a couple of guys in the pressroom who didn’t buy into it, who privately regarded Riley in terms that ranged from suspicion to contempt. They had their reasons. As Riley defined the world, sportswriters were not only “them,” but part of a subspecies he called “peripheral opponents.”
We’d gather as inbred rivals, a caravan of harried, overworked typists in various states of dishevelment, a profane chorus of beat writers and opinionists (the louder, the better), professional exaggerators hyperventilating for pay, more than willing to spin prowess into virtue and mere flaws into evil.
The sportswriter endures myriad minor indignities. But Riley made them all worse. He didn’t give out his home number, didn’t do golf outings, didn’t kill anyone off the record. His band of monosyllabic millionaires would stay at the Four Seasons while the rest of us were consigned to Marriotts for the bonus points and those less-than-dirty movies known throughout the profession as Spank-O-Vision. Riley’s guys dined on silver and china like knights at his round table while we hustled chicken fingers on the buffet line. Riley closed practices, making us loiter in the parking lot so that we might catch those pearls from Starks (“We have to focus more”) or Patrick Ewing (“Most definitely”) or Charles Oakley (“Whatever, whatever”) as they made their way to their Mercedeses and their all-terrain vehicles.
Riley stood in stark juxtaposition to the whole sports culture, and for that alone I wanted to cheer. He kept his distance from the hangers-on, the autograph seekers, the ticket scalpers, and all those guys screaming on the radio. We suffered from bellies and baldness and nose hairs. But Riley was pressed perfect. He took not a step on the StairMaster, and he never got old.
If you only knew our resentments, the smell of that sweaty serum as we’d gather for his postgame press conference, full of deadline dread. There’s some maniac cursing you back at the office, there’s an asshole TV guy probing your vertebrae with his microphone. And here comes Riley. You ask him X’s and O’s, he gives you the philosophy of “Force.”
And he’s fresh as a fucking daisy.
Eventually, the nerds would exact their revenge. But during the honeymoon, who cared? Riley may have been a bit—how to put it?—extreme, but he had his own lunatic virtues, which was a lot more than could be said for some of the tobacco spitters and two-bit felons we glorify. Of course, I could hyperventilate with the best of them. And by the time I got through with Riley, he wasn’t a basketball coach. Hell, no! I’d turn that sumbitch into Henry V and every playoff game into another Agincourt.
* * * *
Honeymoons always end, though, and badly in a town like New York. The Knicks finished the 1993–94 season—Riley’s third with the team—just seven points shy of a championship. But we spent most of the playoffs bashing them, mouthing the displeasures of the connoisseur fans whom we both pandered to and served. Along the way, another perception had been born: If the Knicks represented Riley’s virtues, they also epitomized his faults. They could be dogmatic bullies, predictable, plodding, even paranoid.
Paranoia was all the rage in the spring of 1994 as Madison Square Garden was being sold from Paramount Communications to Viacom, which in turn would sell it right off to ITT and Cablevision. Life in the Garden became Machiavellian—full of intrigue, subplots, and treacheries. All that, and Riley—who had just taken his Knicks to the finals—wanted a new deal.
He wouldn’t come cheap, either. He wanted a five-year, $25 million extension. He wanted a piece of the team. He wanted to be president of the New York Knicks. He wanted a lot of things.
The Knicks were offering five years, $15 million.
And it never really got closer than that. Just nastier. This last season was hellish—for the coach and the team. The Knicks were still tough, but Riley called them “cream puffs.” They worked their asses off, but Riley called them “unprofessional.” He had his annual blowout with Anthony Mason, suspending him for five games. The strain was showing. And yet, somehow, they regrouped from a lousy start to finish with 55 wins, just two behind the Orlando Magic, a young team but also the most physically gifted ensemble since Riley’s Lakers.
On May 21, the Knicks were eliminated in the seventh game of the second round by the Indiana Pacers, as Patrick Ewing’s last-second finger roll bounded off the back of the rim. On June 15, Riley faxed his official letter of resignation. Then, in an absolute bonehead move, he skipped town, leaving nothing but a statement saying he wanted “ultimate responsibility for all significant aspects of the ball club.” For Riley, it was all about control.
But for Dave Checketts, the Garden boss, it was all about money. Checketts—a bright, ambitious executive who had prospered in this concrete Kremlin, becoming president of both the Garden and the Knicks—was calling Riley a pig without saying as much.
Later, The New York Times would report that on June 5, ten days before he faxed his resignation, Riley’s friend Dick Butera passed the coach’s “wish list” to Miami Heat owner Micky Arison. Among other things, Riley was asking for $15 million in salary, immediate 10 percent ownership of the Heat, another 10 percent over the life of the contract, loans, limousines, credit cards, and $300 per diem in expenses. The memo became the basis for the deal, which, depending on how long Riley stays with the Heat, approaches a worth of $40 million.
So we all got out our book of Rileyisms, The Winner Within, and started quoting. The guy was a liar, a phony; it was about money, greed…. It was about the Disease of Me, the Disease of Riley.
Eventually, Riley would say that Checketts—his erstwhile ally, the guy who brought him in—had used him and lied to himself. He said Checketts had promised him an unconditional release in return for his silence as the Garden was being sold from Viacom to ITT and Cablevision. He said that he needed to be president of the Knicks to insulate him from the corporate intrigue that had doomed so many other Knick teams and coaches. He said they could have cut a deal for about $20 million and the title, but that Checketts refused to budge. He had a lot to say. But by then, it was too late for Riley to repair his reputation in New York.
* * * *
We’re in the limousine heading for practice, rolling down Palmetto Expressway, discussing The Winner Within. Published in 1993, it was a best-selling primer that grew out of his motivational lectures. Only Riley could write a book with motives as mercenary as they were sincere. The Winner Within was dedicated to his father.
But for my $22.95, it was the worst thing the guy ever did. The world no more needed a how-to on leadership, teamwork, and success from Pat Riley than a beauty book from Cindy Crawford. The Winner Within demystified his charisma. It came off like a preachy infomercial. Riley may have been image conscious (he’d sneak a smoke, though never in public), but he was dismal at PR. Now you could read all about “The Core Covenant” and “Core Cracking,” about “Thunderbolts” and “Moving On,” and, most of all, about “The Disease of Me.”
“That book is for people like you,” he says, “for cynics.”
“C’mon, how do you expect—”
“No. I laugh when guys like you roll their eyes; I laugh at the writers and maybe even some of the players who mock it . They can roll their eyes all they want, looking for something to get me on. They don’t understand: It inspires me. It clarifies things for me. I believe that stuff. I live it.”
I ask if he lived it during his departure from the Knicks.
“Have you read the book? I mean, have you sincerely read it?”
“I kind of, you know, went through it….”
“Well, I did exactly what it says. We reached an impasse, and I planted my feet. It was either time to go home or time to go on. I went on.”
We’ve hit traffic. Riley checks his watch and gazes out the window. “I was miserable in New York,” he says quietly.
“Why is it,” he asks, “that no coach lasts more than three or four years in that town? Why are they always looking to get you? Maybe that’s the difference. Look, I am who I am, but I don’t try to get anybody. I don’t go off the record. I don’t leak stories.”
“TEAM TURMOIL,” I blurt out, referring to one of the better back pages at the Daily News, players bitching off the record that the offense sucked, that Ewing took too many shots. “Good story.”
“The Rule of the Gutless,” he says. “I mean, you got something to say, put your name on it. How many unnamed sources lied and ruined people?”
Too much talk of getting and they for my taste. I knew he cared, but not this much.
“Damn right I care. Shit, I was coaching in a city where tabloid and mainstream have come together, where perception is reality. You want a good quote, well, I’ll tell you what, gimme the name of the guy who said it, and I’ll give you a helluva quote.
“Guys would question my character in the paper. But not ever to my face. No, they’d come to practice and ask me about rebounding. Well, ask me to my face. Call me gutless to my face. I mean, what would you do?”
“I don’t know. I’d probably—”
“Damn right. I’d put ‘em on their ass.”
We’ve broken through the traffic now, a little behind schedule, It’s not yet 9:00 a.m., but Riley will still be the first guy in the gym. He’s already choreographed every moment of the day’s two practices. It’s all committed to his blue index cards. He’s got a lot of rookies coming in today. They’ll be hungry. They’ll listen. And he can’t wait. He’ll run them as they’ve never been run before. He gets cheerful quickly.
“I love going to practice,” he says.
* * * *
By noon, about two dozen reporters and cameramen have gathered outside the gym to cover the big event, Riley’s first day. They’re not accustomed to this ritual: waiting. Closed practices are one thing, but this is just a bullshit minicamp for the game’s minor-leaguers, none of whom even figure to make the squad. Still, Riley’s taking his time, looking for a practice player, someone like the guy he used to be.
A few of the writers are thumbing through The Winner Within. They’re rolling their eyes, shaking their heads, reading aloud from page 144: “Riles’ Rule for Kicking the Complacent Ass.”
They’re just beginning to learn about us and them. Soon they’ll discover the Gaelic Bushido. And eventually, “The Disease of Me.” They won’t write it that way, though. Not for some time. And maybe never. It’s different down here. Honeymoons last longer in the tropics. And Riley’s the hottest guy in town. There’s a story in the morning paper about the slick hair and the expensive suits, the caricature. That’s always how it starts.
* * * *
Midnight approaches at Don Shula’s All-Star Cafe, a standard-issue backdrop in the society of sports, a blur of autographed memorabilia, a Bennigan’s on steroids, and just a mere piece in the Dolphin coach’s empire: There’s also Shula’s sports bar, Shula’s steak house, Shula’s fitness center, Shula’s golf course, Shula’s tennis facility, and Shula’s hotel, all of which goes to show how far we are from New York. The instinct of this town, a whiff of boosterism in the humid air, is to deify its coaches.
It’s been a long day for Riley. He ran two practices, had a meeting with his assistants in the car, and another with his son’s principal at the new school. He taped a series of TV spots for the Heat, negotiated his release from Elisabeth’s birthday party in return for the promise of a big family dinner next week. Then he took another round of meetings with his assistants. And here he comes, round midnight, fresh as a daisy.
“Well, KoolMoeDee, there go the coach,” says a waitress. “I love coach. Coach got it all goin’ on.”
Riley excuses himself for a quick call on his cellular. He wants to check on the kids, the birthday girl in particular. “She understands Daddy,” he sighs. “She understands how he is.”
It’s the children, both adopted, who’ve helped temper his obsessions. “We tried to have kids for 15 years,” he says. “Then they came along and changed our lives.”
The night wears on, a conversation moving toward confession. He tells me that he’ll play golf but only on the rarest of occasions, only with friends, and only if someone cracks a six-pack and heads for the clubhouse on the back nine. He says he wants to drive a black 1949 Mercury, the one from Rebel Without a Cause, that he wants to hear “Chapel of Dreams” by the Dubs, and that he can’t fathom Magic Johnson dying of AIDS.
“He’s special,” Riley says quietly. “I just believe it’s all gonna turn out good. They’ll find something…You know, I remember being with the Lakers, I never thought it would end. But here we are….”
Here we are, all these years later, and I’m wondering what happened to the guy in L.A. who used to drink beer and bullshit with the reporters in the pressroom.
“I used to do a lot of things I don’t do anymore,” he says. “Hell, I was a broadcaster, a traveling secretary. I used to hand out boarding passes to the players for the planes. But that was all before I became a coach.”
I remind him of something he told me: “I’m still the same guy I always was—a prick.”
Riley snorts a laugh. “Look, I drive players. Just like I drive myself. But if I’m a prick, I’m more of a prick to myself. As far as the control thing, people just embellish that. I want to treat my players to the best. If I’m having a team party, I want white tablecloths, I want china, and I want silverware. I don’t want fuckin’ plastic plates. And I want a flower arrangement in the middle. And if the towels are hotel white, hey, put some color in there, I don’t give a shit. I want my team to fly first-class, to stay in first-class hotels. I’m gonna ask them to do a lot. So tell me, is that wrong, wanting them to have the best?”
In Riley’s world, coaches can be pricks, but they can also be patriarchs. He speaks of coaching as if it were theology.
I ask him about Adolph Rupp.
“I knew he would make me better. He was a little like my old man,” says Riley. “He was the only coach who ever scared the shit out of me.”
Rupp was also the game’s last unabashed segregationist.
“He was a great coach. Period. I learned more about coaching and detail and organization from Adolph than I learned from anybody…. Look, was he a hard man? Yes. Was he a disciplined man? Egocentric? Powerful? Yes, he was all those things. But racist?” A pause now: Riley trying to reconcile his loyalty with the facts. “When I was there, I never once once sensed he was racist. It was the Southeastern Conference in the early to mid-60’s. There weren’t any black players. Just weren’t. Wasn’t until we got beat by Texas Western and Big Daddy Lattin dunked on my ass that we even started thinking about it.”
Texas Western—now the University of Texas at El Paso—an all-black team of transplanted city kids, beat Rupp’s Runts for the NCAA championship in 1966. Then Riley watched Rupp walk off “holding a brown paper sack by the throat.”
It brings a grimace to his face. “Hell, I didn’t care. I mean, I was raised in a family where my old man would do the same thing…. Anyway, years later, Bob McAdoo told me that was the game that changed everything. He said it made it okay for black players to go to school in the South.”
McAdoo, the great scorer, played his last best days in the NBA for Riley’s Lakers. Now he’ll be one of his assistants.
I ask if McAdoo got the job because he’s black.
“I would never hire anyone for that reason,” he says. “I’ve only hired coaches because they’re the very best.”
It’s been years since Riley had a black coach on his staff. That said, he’s almost never kept a white guy at the end of the bench. And it occurs to me now that Riley—a great general but willfully ignorant of such political arts as compromise—is doing the only job for which he’s temperamentally qualified. Coaching is the last accepted American autocracy. No need for PC. Just win, baby.
Which could be a problem down here. The Heat have never been hot. Theirs is an inglorious history, a grand total of two playoff wins. Last season’s record: 32–50. Cell phones could be heard ringing during home games. As a bunch of losers, this team is only flattered by comparisons with the pre-Riley Knicks.
“Well, we’re gonna have to do something,” he says. “Something dramatic.”
He takes a small sip of beer and declares: “This is my last run, without a doubt. I’m gonna coach like hell to try to win it. I’m committed to that goal. But if I don’t ever win it again, well, I’m not gonna chase that dream into my sixties or seventies. That’ll kill you.”
So that’s it. The show closes in Miami. There’s only one thing left to ask, an intrusion into his most private sanctum, the secret life of Riley:
“What’s that stuff in your hair?”
“Little gel, little water. Takes two minutes.”
“Nah, what kind of gel?”
“We gotta give someone a plug?”
Finally, reluctantly, he says: “Sebastian.”
And the clothes?…They’re really all Armani?”
He looks at me with disbelief, even irritation, squinting until the hint of a grin forms at the corners of his mouth. “’Cause it’s good shit, that’s why.”
He pauses again, tripping through his own chapel of dreams. “My father was a dapper guy, swept his hair back, used to wear these shirts back in the forties, gabardine shirts—big collar, big pockets. My dad was dapper. He wouldn’t let you out of the house unless you were groomed and clean and looking good. I was taught to peg my own pants in second grade. I only had one pair. Washed them every night. Put ‘em in the stove to dry ‘em for the next morning. Then l’d iron them before I went to school. And one time, I left ‘em in the stove too long and they got griddle marks. The kids teased me, ‘Hey, Riley, what’d you do, cook hamburgers on your pants?’”
Last call is long gone by the time we get up to leave. Riley stops in front of a men’s store in the lobby, pointing to a shirt in the window.
“See,” he says. “That’s like one of those gabardine shirts.”
He gazes at the shirt in much the same drifting, awestruck way he considered his son’s electronic piano.
It’s late. The sun will be up in just a few hours. I tell him goodbye.
But he’s still lost in some recollection that gives the cloth form, animation, even life.
I’m almost at the door when he calls back. “Hey!… Shana tova.”
And a top of the morning to you, too, Coach Riley.
A private man when compared to professional celebrities, say, Mailer, he did not wish to pursue the subject any further. Prying into a living writer’s personal life, he said, was “trivial, a degrading pastime that is best left to gossip columnists. What’s important is a writer’s work.”
And how, at sixty, did he assess his work, I asked, mentioning that writer Richard Yates had described him as “probably the finest living novelist we have.”
Styron’s self-appraisal was more modest. “I have created and, I hope, will continue to create a few people whom readers will want to read about after I’m gone,” he said. “I still feel that I have years ahead of me to be able to say more with the same talent that I have been endowed with.”
A few months after he said that, Styron very nearly lost those years, and the talent that had produced Lie Down in Darkness and Sophie’s Choice collapsed to the point that he could not read and comprehend a simple newspaper article, let alone write anything. The disease that struck him used to be called melancholia. Its current name is clinical depression—a cloak of despair that falls over a man or woman and makes every waking moment so painful that the victim loses all desire to live.
I was made aware of his breakdown last fall, when Styron called me at my home in Key West and told me he was suffering from a profound depression, which, he then thought, had been caused by tranquilizers prescribed to ease his withdrawal from alcohol. He was, he’d said, considering committing himself to a psychiatric hospital.
The news shocked me because I had formed an image of him as a contented man—contented, that is, compared to other novelists I knew, including myself. Naively, I had persuaded myself that his stable marriage, affluence, and “literary gentleman” style of life had insulated him from the grave misfortunes that seem to befall most American writers.
l heard nothing from or about him for weeks; then, in the winter, I learned from a New York magazine editor that Styron had been committed to the psychiatric ward of Yale-New Haven hospital.
There was no other word until this spring, when the same editor telephoned with what might be called the good news and the bad news. Good news first: Styron had been released. The bad news was, he’d been so ravaged by his bout with depression that he had abandoned The Way of the Warrior. Worse, the editor implied, Styron’s career might be at an end. This information was more than distressing; I refused to accept the idea that Styron’s voice could be silenced by anything short of death. I wrote him a letter, a somewhat embarrassing letter, for it was full of tough-guy, gung-ho attempts at reinspiring him, the sort of thing a corner-man might say to an exhausted fighter, but inappropriate when addressed to a sixty-year-old author recovering from a nervous breakdown. The gist of it was that writers sometimes need as much courage as warriors, courage of a different kind. If he was abandoning his book for artistic reasons; that was one thing, I said; but if he was doing so because he no longer felt up to it, he had to force himself to keep going. I then invoked the “never retreat, never surrender” spirit of the Marine Corps. It would not have surprised me if Styron had not bothered to reply to such rah-rah, but I received an encouraging answer in early April.
“Let me say again how grateful I am to you for your letter,” he wrote. “Corny as it may appear, it seems that only a Marine can be truly aware of another Marine’s suffering; you gave me a nice jolt of good cheer. Thanks from the depths. I’m pleased and proud of your friendship.”
And I was pleased that I had done some good after all. Still more pleasing was the news that he had not given up on The Way of the Warrior.
“It’s not so much abandonment,” he’d said in his letter, “as extreme alteration….I’ve completely restructured the novel.”
Over the phone, we agreed to discuss the book’s radical transformation when I visited New York later in the month.