This one here is a beaut. “The Last Swinger,” Tom Junod’s 1996 Tony Curtis profile for GQ (April). It appears here with the author’s permission.
Dig in and enjoy!
“The Last Swinger”
By Tom Junod
SO THERE’S THIS TREE OUTSIDE SPAGO, the restaurant in Los Angeles where Tony Curtis eats almost every night of the week. It’s a lemon tree, or a lime tree, something like that, with dark, shiny leaves and a peppery smell that softens the shrill air off Sunset, and it’s so beautiful that when I walked underneath it, my hand jumped automatically into its branches and clutched a hard green ball of fruit. I had just finished my first meal with Tony, and he was walking behind me with his girlfriend, Jill Vanden Berg, this strapping 25-year-old triumph of a blonde whom he had addressed, back in the restaurant, as “you goddess of love, you twin tower of desire, you two tons of vanilla ice cream, you.”Jill was having some trouble navigating the inclined sidewalk in the five-inch spike heels that made her roughly the size of a power forward, so I didn’t think Tony was watching me, but the second my fingers closed around that piece of fruit, and I mean the very second, I heard his voice, and it said, “Take it.”
Well, of course. He is Tony Curtis, after all, a man who pronounces his own name in italics, and he is alert to any instance of appetite, however idle, and now, with Jill on his arm, he came tilting and listing down the concrete and stopped in front of the tree. He indicated the fruit with a feint of his chin and shrugged with a quick, smarting grimace of impatience and indulgence. “Take it, take it,” he said again, with a heavy click of his consonants, and when I had done it, when I had broken the fruit from its branch and stashed it in my pocket, he sang the little tune, “Hey bop a rebop,” that strays to his lips whenever he’s happy or just wants to get things moving or wants to show the world that he, Tony Curtis, still has something to say about desire, and what a man’s obligated to do with it.
“I LIKE YOU,” TONY SAYS TO me at the bar at Spago. “You don’t want to know how big my dick is, and you don’t want to know who I fucked and who I didn’t fuck.” Then he changes his voice into the hoarse, booming whisper of a man in the habit of exchanging public confidence and adds, “Although just between you and me, my friend, I fucked them all!” Then he sips from the glass of vodka and Diet Coke he uses to wash down his various and sundry medicines, and slurps the silvery meniscal top off his shot of Patrón tequila, and laughs his great silly, twisting laugh, which always seems to start out as a gambit, a challenge of some sort, and then just keeps going, rising into one thing giddy and wild, a high hacking whinny that mines the mirth from his very bones—”Ha! Ha ha! Ha ha hee hee hoo hoo hoooooo….”
And why not? You were him, you’d laugh, too. Tony Curtis! He’s fucked them all; he’s fucked everybody, and here we are, another night on the town with old T.C., because guess what? He still fucks! He’s 70 year old, and he should be fucking dead, so virtuosic has he been in pursuit of his own corruption, and he still gets laid! “Am I not a fucking miracle?” he says. “Look at me! Look at the scars I got! I am a motherfucker, aren’t I?”
You can’t really see the scars, of course, because right now he’s in his black Armani suit, and his scooped-neck T-shirt that displays his floury ascot of chest hair, and his green suede shoes with the two-inch heels, and his long gray scarf swung rakishly around his neck, and his gold Chevalier medal from the French Ministry of Culture pinned heroically to his lapel—but they’re there, my friend, they’re there, all pink and shiny where they dug out his cancerous prostate…where they cracked open his sternum and garlanded his heart with the vein snatched from the length of his leg…where for ten years he ransacked his nose with all the major pollutants, cocaine, heroin, the works…where his crazy mother put his balls through the wringer…where his beloved little brother got run over by a truck…where his other little brother went nuts and wound up picking garbage off the street of Hollywood…and where, dear God, he lost his son, his son, his beloved son. Hell, the list is long: the list is endless; Tony’s a freaking amalgam of his wounds, and yet here he is—enjoying himself! Having fun! Offering the world instruction in the art of celebrity! At Spago, which he pronounces with a long, dawdling stress on the first syllable! With Jill, that gadzookian dish!
“Why, hello, darling,” he says to Jill, in a voice insinuating the thrill of discovery, even though Jill walked through the door with him, in a white fur that made her look like some exotic winter game, and even though for the past five minutes he has been standing next to him at the bar, drinking from a tulip glass of Champagne. “Hello, tateleh. Oh, you lovely creature. You look so beautiful tonight. So fresh! So young!”
“I thought you said I was getting older looking,” Jill says. She is on the long side of five-eleven in bare feet and six-five in her heels, and when she slips out of her fur, she is wearing a skintight dress of pearlescent vinyl whose high hem continually gooses her epic ass and make her legs loom like the pillars astride the gates of an ancient city. She has hair of Harlowesque platinum, and a beauty mark dabbed on her cheek, and lips surrounded by a dark border, and small, perfect sandblasted features, and skin of such powdery phosphorescent pallor that she seems to walk forever in the blanching nimbus of a flashbulb.
“Younger!” Tony says. “I said you were looking younger.”
“I thought I was getting too old for you,” Jill says, and although she is large, her voice is small and sad, a fretful coo that issues from a face as still as sculpture.
“You’re only 25!” Tony says. “Now, maybe when you’re 35, maybe then—but c’mon, darling, let’s enjoy it while we can! We have a lot of good years left!”
No, not for him, not for T.C., some old broad on his arm with nothing left in her eyes but forever. “Can you imagine me with a woman old enough to be my wife?” he once told me. “No, really. I’m serious. Can you imagine me walking into Spago with a 70-year-old woman? Forget it. Fuck that! I don’t have that spirit. My girlfriend is 25 years old—perfect.” See, there’s something about a woman just making her way in the world—”the smell, the taste: There’s a juice there that’s very important”—and these days when Tony walks into Spago with Jill on his arm, man, heads fucking swivel. Yeah, sure, they’re looking at Jill, but they’re looking at him too, because “you got to be something to walk with Jill. Shows you the kind of courage I got. And women love me now more than ever. They look at that fucking girl I’m with—’Look at that 25-year-old girl with that old fucking guy. Whoo! What does he do with his dick?'”
And that’s Tony Curtis for you: Not only does he still fuck—he still wants to show ’em; he still wants to own the room; he still wants. He’s the Last Swinger. The rest of them—that race of men who understood in their guts that the Big War had broken the world wide open and that America was going to stand up and applaud the guy with the balls to make a show not only of his talent but of his appetite—have either been killed off, like Sammy and poor Dino, or appeased, like Sinatra, an honored and honorable geezer at last. Tony’s the only one left, the only one clinging to dishonor, an embarrassment of carnality—the sly old satyr, unsated. You know how much more living he’s done than anyone else? Well, you can add it up. He’s made 112 movies—a lot of them shit but a lot of them an amplification of his experience, all of the life, as in “When you’re making Some Like It Hot and Marilyn Monroe sticks her tongue in your mouth all the way down to your navel, that’s not moviemaking, my friend, that’s life.”
He’s painted something like 1,500 paintings. He’s had four wives. He’s had six children—and now five. He’s had enough lovers to qualify him, in his own estimation, as “the greatest cocksman to ever come down the pike, man.” There’s no story he hasn’t heard, no lie he hasn’t told, no body buried in Hollywood he doesn’t know where, no vice he hasn’t afforded himself. You’d think he would be full by now, but no…look around. Tony’s everywhere; he’s as current as any of the trash celebrities: He’s showing up at Cannes, he’s out dancing with Jill, he’s mugging for the paparazzi, he’s hanging out with porn stars, he’s going to the birthday parties for Timothy Leary and Richard Pryor (“I love the guys who are gonna check out soon; they make me feel better”), he’s crashing parties, he’s telling people off…and now, at Spago, down two tequilas and his medicinal vodka and Diet Coke, he’s making his way from the bar to a table, his table, and offering his check to the crones and cronies who populate the place, “Kiss, kiss, dahlink.”
Then he sits down and orders “corn on the cob with the truffles, Caesar salad and a half order of sushi tuna, no avocado and bring it all out at once. Yes, yes, that’s how you eat, isn’t it? Everything on the table. Yes! Entrée the same time as the appetizer!” The waiter brings him another shot, and Tony starts talking about the dream he had a few nights earlier, a dream in which he goes to some posh party and is crucified in front of Jack Lemmon, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, Robert Wagner, et al. Thing is, all those guys, they’re all smiling and laughing at the spectacle of Tony on the cross—”They thought it was a good idea, and so did I.” Then Tony’s corn comes, along with the salad—”Now bring the entrée! Good! Good!”—and a strange thing happens, the kind of thing that happens to Tony all the time: He looks up and purses his Cupid’s lips into a cagey smile enfolds his arms across his chest like a stricken fan and says, “As I live and breathe, if it isn’t R.J. Wagner.” And it is—fresh from the crucifixion, it’s Robert Wagner, whom Tony had called R.J. for forty-some-odd-years, and he’s wearing his president-of-the-Protestant-frat-circa-1962 getup, turtleneck and tweedy jacket, and he leans over and smiles and shakes Tony’s hand, but he doesn’t stop, not really, not long enough to talk, and when he is gone, I say, “My God, does that man ever age?”
And Tony, wiping a crumb from his lips, says, “No, he’s the same old man he was when he was 24.”
Then Jill St. John walks by, in Wagner’ wake. “Hi,Tony,” she says.
“Hi Jill,” Jill St. John says to Jill Vanden Berg.
Then she sits down at another table, and Tony’s face goes sour. “Jill St. John,” he says. “What a sack of shit.”
And Jill straightens up and pats Tony’s hand and says, “Now, Tony, be nice.”
But Tony is not nice. He can he generous and kind and charming, but he is not nice; he has never been nice, because from from the start he has been involved in the act of creation, and from the start he has understood that in order to create, you have to he willing to destroy.
HE CREATED HIMSELF, OF COURSE. He created Tony Curtis. He wanted to be Tony Curtis, but he was not Tony Curtis, he was Bernie Schwartz, a Hungarian Jew living in the back of his father’s tailor shop on the East Side of Manhattan and later in the Bronx. He had a mother who beat the shit out of him, and a little brother, Julie, who followed him around, and an awareness that not only he, Bernie Schwartz, was beautiful, but that his beauty was somehow incompatible with Bernie Schwartz in the place where Bernie had to live. “All the beautiful people leave their neighborhoods,” he says now. “And you know why? Because they don’t have to stay there! Beauty is America’s lottery, and celebrity is America’s royalty. That’s just the way it goes, just the way it is, and there’s nothing anyone can do to deny that.”
He began taking his leave one day when he was 13. He was out running around with his buddies, and Julie was tagging along. “Get the fuck out of here,” Bernie Schwartz said. “Go find your own friends.” Julie walked away, and on his way home, alone, he walked in front of a truck. He was 9 years old. His mother demanded that Bernie be the one to go to the hospital and identify him. Julie was still alive, in a coma, and Bernie whispered in his ear and told him he loved him. He died the next day, and so Bernie started going down to the East River to pray, to beseech God to allow him to see his brother, just once, just for a moment, their little secret, their little deal. But no, Julie Schwartz—perhaps the only person Bernie had ever loved enough to stay for—was gone, and so Bernie Schwartz was free to go.
He went out to Hollywood after the navy, after the war. Sure, he was still legally Bernie Schwartz, and he still had a mouthful of Bernie’s rotten teeth—but he already had Tony Curtis’s hairstyle, and he was already wearing his shirts just the way Tony Curtis would, with the open collar…and pretty soon he got his teeth capped, each and every one…and pretty soon Universal put him under contract…and pretty soon, when he went back to New York after his first movie, he told the limo driver to go by the theater where he had taken some acting courses. And there he saw Walter Matthau standing in the rain, and he rolled down the window and he shouted, “Hey, Walter! I fucked Yvonne De Carlo!”
What a benediction! But was it Bernie Schwartz who fucked her? No, it couldn’t have been. It had to have been Tony Curtis, because that’s who he was now—and it was Tony Curtis who married Janet Leigh; Tony Curtis who was voted the biggest box-office star four years in a row; Tony Curtis who made nearly four movies a year, “movies that were made for $200,000, that grossed 2½ million each, on tickets that cost a quarter. I was fucking King Kong! I could’ve eaten the world!”
Tony Curtis never got away from the Schwartzes, though. They followed him. His mother, his father and Bobby, the brother born after Julie’s death—they followed him to Hollywood, and they lived there, and his mother demanded that Tony take care of Bobby and get him into the movies. Oh, poor Bobby, he was crazy from his schizophrenia—but his mother, she was crazy from rancor, from malice. Nothing satisfied her—nothing. “Those were miserable fucking days,” Tony says. “My marriage to Janet started to deteriorate. I mean, give us a fucking break! Why wouldn’t we at the end of the day’s shooting close the doors and the windows, put up a sign: NOBODY BOTHER THEM. Why couldn’t I just say, ‘Hi, Mom. How much money do you need, Mom? Thirty-eight dollar for new suit? Then buy it. Leave me the fuck alone! Leave me the fuck alone! Leave me the fuck alone!’”
He couldn’t do it—stay in his marriage, take care of his bother, any of it. Tony wasn’t built for endurance, you see; he was built for escape. He’d tried, in his fashion, to take care of Bobby, but often that meant farming him out—to friends; to other, lesser actors; to a guy like Nicky Blair. Yeah, that’s what Tony would do—he’d give Bobby to Nicky, and he’d be sure to get Nicky a part in the next Tony Curtis feature. Sometimes, though, Bobby would do some crazy thing, like leaving the hospital, living in the streets like a bag man, just to make Tony find him, just to make Tony prove that he loved him. “I felt bad about Bobby; I still feel bad about Bobby. But he’s one of the victims. You know? One of the victims. One of the ones that didn’t get away. Some get away; some don’t. Every family has that.”
And when Bobby Schwartz died, in 1993, Tony Curtis hadn’t seen him in five years.
“YOU KNOW WHAT HAPPINESS is?” Tony says. “I’ll show you what happiness is!”
He opens the door of his garage. He is wearing what he usually wears when he isn’t wearing his black suit–white shorts and a white muscle T-shirt and Birkenstocks, and of course, the accoutrement he is never without, his armature of hair, fashioned out of some spun silver alloy. He’s looking good, Tony Curtis is. He’s looking healthy, vital. He has thick, strong arms and thick, strong legs—one of them striped ankle to groin by his scar—and a body that bespeaks abundance, like a sack used in the plunder of a rich man’s house. He is no longer beautiful. His face is atavistic. His blue eyes have turned milky, and his nose is fat, and he no longer looks like the perpetual boy, the charmed and charming tagalong, but at last like a man who wears his life right on his kisser—and who has earned the right to tell me what happiness is.
There are two cars in the garage—a silver Camaro Z28 with a black convertible roof, and a white Firebird Trans Am with a blue convertible roof. They are both limited editions, and on the dashboard of each is a brass plaque that say, BUILT ESPEClALLY FOR TONY CURTIS. “Look at these fuckers!” Tony says. “Hee hee hee hee! Fuck Cadillacs! Happiness is having these two cars—it’s freedom!” He puts on a black leather jacket and a pair of leather driving gloves—he never drives anywhere without gloves—and a flat-brimmed Stetson, and we get in the Trans Am, whose passenger seat is littered with loose compact discs. (“Tony what kind of music do you listen to?” “Rap, man.”) Then we go. Tony likes to go. He likes to drive fast. He’s had eighty cars, “every car anybody would ever desire…Buick convertible, Dynaflow drive…Facel Vega…Ferrari…Aston Martin…that small Bentley…the Rolls and the Bentley…Maserati…all the Mercedes…every Firebird ever made”—and now here he is, on the freeway, eighty, eighty-five, ninety miles per hour, in a car without license plates, but what does he care? The cops stop him all the time, but they don’t give him tickets, once they see who he is, once they see that he’s Tony Curtis. “I’ve been privileged, I know. Do you know what kind of life I’ve had? And I still can’t get enough of it! I can’t get enough of it, my friend! The living, everything. Just what I’m doing with you now. I love it. I love driving down the fucking freeway!”
Do you know what kind of life he’s had? A few year ago, he was standing at a urinal, in France, and a man asked him if he was Tony Curtis. Tony said yes, he was. The man asked if he had fucked Marilyn Monroe. Tony said yes, he had. Then the man asked if he could kiss his dick, because he wanted to kiss the dick that had been inside Marilyn Monroe. “I said, ‘Get the fuck out of here.’ So he says, ‘Well, can I touch it then?'” That’s the kind of life he’s had. You know, people think that back in the ’50s. the Beats, Kerouac and all them were the pioneers. Well, fuck the Beats! When the Beats were off playing bongo drums, Tony was fucking starlets at the Château Marmont at 5:30 in the morning! Tony was the pioneer! He did eat the world! Tony was a Face Man of America! What, you never heard of the Face Men? Well, they were a group of guys—a club of sorts, consisting of Tony and Sammy and Frank and Dean and Jerry Lewis, guys like that, yeah, Nicky Blair, him too—dedicated to the art of eating pussy. “We were the harbingers of the future. I’m sure going down on girls was passed on and on and on, but we brought it to a new height of elegance—nobody was ashamed of it anymore. We had dinners. We had cards: ‘This is to certify that Tony Curtis is a member of the Face Men of America. ‘Yoo-hoo! I love it! I fucking love it!”
He used to dress up in costumes, like a sheikh or something, with sword and turban, when he made love to women. He used to hide in the closet and leave tape-recorded instructions for his lovers on his dining room table—”‘Hello, Gladys. I’m glad you made it. Lock the door behind you, dear. Go into the bedroom; put on something comfortable.’… Listen, they loved it! I’d laugh them into their orgasms.” He had his share of starlets, of course, but he preferred secretaries, strippers, porn stars. Then he began living with Jill, and he simplified. He didn’t want to squander himself, because his potency…well, his potency is hard-won, if you want to know the truth. See, when he had his prostate removed he learned that “with this operation, 50 or 60 percent of the time men will become completely impotent. I was not in that group, but I still had difficulty with erections. But then as time went on, I found I was becoming stronger and some of the women I went with excited me…and then they came up with some shots you could give yourself to the penis which will give you an erection. The doctor told me, ‘This injection will give you an erection for two hours.’ I said, ‘Doctor, that will be one hour and fifty-seven minute longer than I’ve ever had!'”
He starts to laugh. We are driving down the freeway as he tells me this—for as it happens, we are driving down the freeway whenever we talk about sex, or rather, we talk about sex whenever we are driving down the freeway—and his foot is on the gas, and he starts to speed, and what I hear above the Trans Am’s mad chatter, is this: “Ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha! Yee-hee-hee-hoooo!”
AN ETERNAL ERECTION! WELL, WHY NOT? With the way he takes care of himself, and the medicines they have these days, maybe he’ll get away with it, all this giddy venery—maybe he’ll just go on forever—with the prostaglandins for his putz and the Prozac for his psyche, and the Percocet for his aches and pains, and the Patrón for his overall sense of bonhomie. Moderation in medication: That’s what Tony practices now, and some nights, when it’s late and he’s out dancing, he’ll drain another shot of Patrón and tell you that he’s finally found what he’s been looking for, and that secret is perpetual inebriation—a way of drinking all night long that neither violates his elegant equilibrium nor means that he is an alcoholic on his way to the abyss he once called home.
Yeah, the abyss, man, the gutter: Tony lived there, or pretty damned close to it, for nearly ten years. And do you know why. Because he got scared. He got desperate. He started hating everything, hating life itself. It happened in the ’70s, when Tony was closing in on 50, and that milestone, he says, “was like something obscene. It was like something that should be killed, that should be put away…My fucking looks went; everything went. My hair was falling out in handfuls. I was sick; I lost all my humor, I had no sense of myself, reality, anybody—I wouldn’t talk to anybody. I was so fucking mean and arrogant, because I was losing it, and I knew I was losing it, and I didn’t want to share that loss with anybody.” So he did cocaine. It made him feel like himself again, like Tony Curtis, omnipotent, unable to make a mistake, beyond consequence—he couldn’t possibly foresee that he would wind up stumbling around Hollywood, fainting in his own spittle, sleeping in the backseat of his Trans Am, as lost in his own way as his poor crazy brother Bobby was in his. He couldn’t possibly foresee that he would start freebasing. He couldn’t possibly foresee that he would start snorting and smoking heroin, the ultimate death drug, although he never shot it, thank God….
“Heroin?” I say, the first time he tells me all this. “I have, hard time believing that Tony Curtis did a drug like heroin.”
“Heroin!” Tony says. And then, suddenly, “That’s what killed my son! That’s what killed my son! That’s what killed my son!”
WE DRIVE TO HIS STUDIO, in an industrial park somewhere in the Valley. He wants me to see it because it moves him, this place where he stores most of his paintings and most of the shadow boxes he has obsessively and compulsively assembled. Imagine: You walk into an enormous windowless room, and the first thing you see are his paintings, dozens, maybe hundreds of them, big, quick, color-crazed still lifes—a goblet on a table, with a bottle of wine and a bowl of fruit—in the style of Matisse. Then you see his boxes, hundreds of them too…then his hooks, and his photographs, and the statues he’s collected, and the paintings he’s bought from other artists, and a genuine Warhol Marilyn, and an assortment of memorabilia from his movies and a show box of old colognes, and a jar of old toothbrushes, and some tape measures, some crystal goblets, some pipes, an old box camera, a shoe-shine kit, albums of press clippings, bowls of balls, books of cocktail recipes, hairbrushes, paintbrushes, pens, screws, shot glasses, thread, flashlights, pieces of quartz, pieces of flint, cigarette lighters, playing cards, scales, shoehorns, starfish. Scotch tape, eyeglass cases, watches, watch straps, luggage, locks, old shaving kits and marbles, marbles everywhere, like crumbs in a neglected kitchen. And none of this stuff has just been tossed here, either—no, what makes the place haunting is Tony’s proprietorship of it: the fact that, as he says, “there’s nothing in here I haven’t touched; there’s nothing I haven’t arranged, personally.” Indeed, as he walks around now in his muscle tee and his white shorts and his black leather jacket, that’s what he starts doing with this infinity of artifacts: he starts fiddling with them, adjusting them, rearranging them, a half inch here, a quarter inch there, until everything within reach of his pale and mottled hand is just so… “My boxes, this studio—I like them to happen the way the universe happened,” Tony says. “You know? Out of the big bang, everything flew away, and it’s like I’m trying to put it all back together…perfect, just the way it was.”
The big bang! Tony is his own big bang. Wherever he goes, he brings the blast with him….and then he tries to gather everything he has scattered, chasing the ash that falls from the sky. He has had four wives, and he severed himself from them with childlike concision: “I don’t like you. I don’t want to be married to you anymore. You make me mad. You displease me.” He has, or had, two children from each of his first three marriages: first Kelly and Jamie Lee, then Alexandra and Allegra, and then his sons. Benjamin and Nicholas…but nothing can be made completely whole once it has been blown apart; nothing can be just the way it was, unless of course it is something that Tony can catch, collect and place wherever it pleases him. He loves objects, you see. He believes in them, and when Tony is lonely, he does not often depend on the messy solace of human contact—no, he’d rather come here, to the studio, to find succor in the detritus of the lives he’s led, and the lives he’s left.
“C’mere,” Tony says. “I want to show you something.” We go into a little side room where he keeps some of his best boxes and his best marbles. He has been collecting marbles since he was a child; they are his Rosebuds, he says, these pieces of glass he took from his playmates because he was better at the game than they were and because that’s the way it is with Tony, and has alway been: Whatever it is you’ve got, he wants, and whatever it is you want, he’s got. l pick up a fat one, one of the shooters, an “immie.” It is radiantly blue—as blue as sapphire, as blue, perhaps, as Tony’s eyes were when he won it—and when Tony sees it, he says, “The guy who owned this marble is probably 80 years old. And yet the marble looks as though it’s never been used. See? An object can defy time, if it’s perfect.”
Then he closes my hand around it. “I want you to have it,” he says. “Happiness is a blue immie.”
NICHOLAS CURTIS WAS NOT PERFECT. “There was,” Tony says, “something unfinished about Nicholas—unfinished perhaps in his brain, that only in the high of cocaine and heroin did he achieve that moment of omnipotence, that moment of ‘Shit, man, I’ve got it all together—I can paint now; I can play my music now.'” An artist and a dreamer, he did not have what Tony has—the survivor’s carapace of selfishness and moxie—and in the summer of 1994, he shot himself in the arm, and just like that, he was one of them, one of the victims, and his father was now one of them, too: one of those forced to make a passage through the world of grief. Oh, sure, Tony had experienced loss before, but when Nicholas died, “that was a devastation. It was more than just a shock; it knocked me out from under my feet.”
His grief enfeebled him. He went to bed after the funeral, and he couldn’t get up—until, of course, one day he got hungry and went out to eat, and he had, he says, a bad experience with Billy Wilder: “We were having dinner one night at Spago. And as I came in, I saw him and I knelt down by him for a moment, and he said, ‘How are you, Tony?’ I said, ‘Billy, my son died. My son Nicholas died.’ This was just a week or so after. ‘He died of an overdose of heroin.’ Billy said to me, ‘He learned it from you.’ I just—it took my breath away. My breath was taken away. I felt terrible. Maybe I felt that it was my responsibility and I didn’t fulfill it, and my son is dead, and I was responsible for it.”
THE SECOND TIME I WENT TO SPAGO with Tony, we met his son Benjamin at the bar, and Tony put his hand on both our shoulders and said, “My sons, my two good sons. He drank three or four shots of Patrón and offered one in toast to Benjamin, a 23-year-old man whose wife is pregnant with a child whose name will be Nicholas.
When we sat down at his table—Tony and Jill, Benjamin and his wife, Nancy, and me—Tony said, “Look at us! We’re in the highest-priced piece of real estate—the most coveted piece of real estate—in the city, the country, the world!” He ordered the corn with truffles and the sushi tuna with no avocado and asked the waiter to bring everything to the table at the same time. And then he talked about Dean Martin and how Dean, after the death of his own son Dino, “lost interest in living”—and how when Dean ate at the same restaurant every night in Beverly Hills, it was not so much for a meal as it was for a nightly exhumation. Dean Martin, Tony said, “was a third-rate singer” who understood that the key to success was not talent but presentation: “His whole act was to make people think he didn’t care about anything, when in reality he cared too much.”
How much did Tony care? What kind of man chooses to die after the death of a son, and what kind of man chooses to live, furiously, impudently, with a Trans Am and a Z28 and a medal from the French government? Did his miraculous rebirth after Nicholas’s overdose signify a warm man or a cold man, a man full of life or a man who is, in some fundamental way, deficient? I asked this question of his first wife, Janet Leigh, and she answered that Tony “can absolutely bury something, so that it doesn’t exist,” and by something she meant almost anything—a marriage, a friendship, a memory, a misgiving, the past itself. And while I did not think that he could so easily bury his sense of culpability in the death of Nicholas, I began to wonder if whatever it was inside him that enabled him to walk away from his families in the first place—whatever gave him an almost unrivaled capacity to disappoint the people who loved him—was precisely what enabled him to go on living with such profligate force and now, as we got up to go, deliver a birthday cake to a table of strangers and kiss the elderly celebrant’s hand before helping her blow out the candles.
IT IS MY LAST NIGHT WITH HIM, and his heel is killing him. He does not know why, he didn’t even do anything, but the pain is such that when he pulls up to the restaurant—it’s not Spago tonight; it’s Drai’s, Tony’s other place—he can barely get out of the Z28, and he has to lean against Jill to get to his table, which is no problem, because Jill is so fucking big, so fucking strong, she could carry him to the table if she had to. And doesn’t Jill look wonderful tonight? Look at her, in her spike heels, and her white fur, and her blue vinyl dress, and her night sky of costume jewelry. She grew up in San Diego, dreaming of being glamorous, and that’s what Tony has encouraged her to be, allowed her to be, and when they sit down at their table—Jill sitting as always on Tony’s left, next to his good ear; Jill wiping crumbs from Tony’s lips—he says, “Oh, I love you much. You’re such a friend to me. I don’t know what I’d do without you. Do you know that? I don’t know what I’d do without you. You’re so up-to-date! You’re ’96—in your mind, your body, your heart, your soul! Your saliva gives me strength to live!”
She answers him as she alway does: by exhibiting a light flush, by whispering, “Oh, Tony,” by giving her shoulders a tiny shake, by squeezing her lips into a pout, by searching Tony’s eye with a look of flickering and wary belief. Oh, she is so vulnerable, Jill is, and that is why she reminds Tony of Marilyn, and that is why Tony goes nuts when people laugh at her. That’s right: Sometimes Jill will stand up in a restaurant, and certain Hollywood people, like Jackie Collins and her fiancé, that fucking Frank Calcagnini, will laugh, right out loud, practically to Jill’s face, the way people used to laugh at Marilyn. Of course, they’re laughing at him too—they’re laughing at Tony, the way they’ve always laughed at Tony, behind his back. But you know what? He used to take it. Now, thanks to Jill and the courage she gives him, he walked right up to Collins and Calcagnini and said, “Fuck you.” And it felt good! He liked saying it—liked it so much that he says it all the time!
“People magazine put me on their Ten Worst Dressed List. I wrote them a letter. ‘Dear People magazine: Fuck you. Tony Curtis.’ They gave Sinatra a party not too long ago; we weren’t invited—I took it as a personal affront. Then I ran across her one day, the woman who gave the party. ‘Hi, Tony!’ I didn’t acknowledge her; I didn’t even pay attention to her. On the way out, she says, ‘Tony, aren’t you going to say hello?’ I said, ‘Fuck you! You give a party for Sinatra; you don’t invite me?’ Can you believe me saying that? But Jill says, ‘Good for you. Good for you.'”
He is free. He does not have to worry about damaging his career, because he damaged his career, irreparably, long ago. He does not have to worry about sabotaging friendships, because Hollywood friendships are something he disavows: “I hang with nobody. Fucking nobody!” Let’s face it: He’s never been accepted in Hollywood, he’s never gotten his due. Maybe because he was too pretty, maybe because he was too arrogant, maybe because he was too Jewish in a town full of “Jews who want to be Aryans”—who knows why, but he can name them all, all those who slighted him all those who treated him like a little fucking boy: Henry Fonda, Peter O’Toole, Laurence Harvey, oh, the Brits especially those grand, godlike Shakespeareans…. But fuck it. Fuck them. They used to bother him, but they don’t anymore, because he’s never going to be what this town wants him to be: He’s never going to be the elder statesman, he’s never going to be respectable, he’s never going to golf at the Hillcrest Country Club, he’s never going to walk into Spago with some brave old broad on his arm, and he’s never going to be given some Academy Award for lifetime achievement, although if he were, you know what he’d do! He’d turn it down. “I’d say, ‘You didn’t give me one for Sweet Smell of Success, you didn’t give me one for Some Like It Hot. You think that just because you decided to recognize the little Jewboy he’s going to come running! No fucking way!'”
HE IS NOT BITTER. No, not Tony. He just wants to disconnect himself from the past, because Tony Curtis cannot be about the past—he must be about the present and the future. “Have you noticed something about my life?” he asks me. “The way I live and everything? Because I’m like that kid again in New York—all I need is one good break. I’m due, double due and overdue. I’m always waiting for that next picture, that next thing.” He doesn’t stop, because he can’t stop. He is the Man Who Ate the World, and for his pleasure, this is his penance, his curse, his sentence: to keep going, to keep eating, drinking, dancing, working, fucking, living, because once he stops, all that’s left is the cost, all that’s left is the reckoning, and he’s faced enough of that already to know he doesn’t want to face it again.
This is what they usually do; this is their ritual three or four times a week: They eat, and then they go to a club off Sunset, and they dance. Tony steps onto the floor alone, and the girls, they just flock to him, strippers especially; he dances in a thicket of them, five or six at a time, until at last Jill stands before him and starts bumping and grinding, doing a dance that is an announcement of erotic intention, and then they go home, Tony says, and they play. Tonight, though, tonight Tony can hardly walk and is limping around in his green suede shoes; tonight Tony has lost his magical equilibrium somewhere between the Patrón and the Percocets; tonight they get to the club early, and it is empty and black, and when Tony goes out to dance, he dances alone, with little, tottering steps, with his eyes big and open and blind, and under the lights he is powdery and ghostlike, an effigy of his appetites. And yet he doesn’t stop; no, of course not. He keeps going; he travels a circuit of the empty floor until at last he reaches its center, and with slow, eerie concentration he points his finger to the disco ball hanging from the ceiling and starts opening and closing each of his hands in the spotlights, snatching at something that always drains away, like a child trying to steal the rain.
Then he comes back to our booth and finds a white napkin and draws a picture of a hand pointing to a slivered moon, with some kind of gem squeezed between its thumb and forefinger, and the stain of a woman’s lipstick imprinted above the cuff. He signs his name and hands me the napkin, and then I pluck from my pocket what he gave me earlier in the week and hold it before his eyes: the blue marble. “An immie!” Tony says, in a kind of startled moan, and then tells me a story: about how when his brother died and he went to the East River to cut his deal with God, he brought his twelve blue immies with him as barter. Just one more time, he asked God—allow him to see Julie just one more time and he would give up his immies; he would throw them in the river, without question or remonstrance. Of course, he never saw his brother again, and now, when “Beast of Burden” comes on and Jill says, “Oh, l love this song!” and stands in from of the the booth to do her bump and grind, Tony has his hand over his eyes, and he is talking to himself or, for all I know, to the God who refused his sacrifice, and he cannot see her.
He is driving home in the Z28. It is another night—because isn’t that the point: that there is always another night? He is wearing his driving gloves; he has found his equilibrium, and when he looks at Jill, he can tell that when they get home they’re going to play. They stop at a traffic light on Sunset, and another car pulls up, a white Trans Am convertible, limited edition, only 250 made in this whole world, the same one Tony has, back in the garage, built exclusively for him. And the kid behind the wheel, he’s wearing driving gloves, and he’s got his shirt open just so, and so Tony rolls down his window and says, “Hey, I got the same car!” And the kid looks at him and says, “Tony Curtis!” And Tony says, “Yeah, but I got the same car!” And the kid says, “I’m gonna be an actor, too!” And Tony says, “Well, you got the right car!” And when he drives away, it is with a feeling of elation, sure, but also of regret, because if only he had been driving his Trans Am, then this meeting with his mirror would have been more than coincidence—it would have been what Tony Curtis lives for, a fucking miracle.