There’s a pivotal moment in early childhood, a tad past the one-year mark, when everything begins to kick in. Speech, formerly consisting of shouted words, starts to take on the aspect of semi-complete sentences. More important, you really start to walk. Tentative first steps are a thing of the past as scannig the horizon before you and an irrepressible urge to “light out for the territory” takes shape in one’s tiny mind and spreads to one’s tiny feet.
My earliest memory is of one such moment. We were living in the Quonset Huts in the Bronx, erected for future inhabitants of then-under-construction apartment blocks. I recall it as a lovely place, where every kid wandered about as they pleased — adults always being close at hand. (We moved away to Flushing Queens before the apartments were ready, but many in that Quonset community remained life-long family friends. ) The day that I recall is one where I decided to “run away from home” — an “acting out” I executed with some frequency that consisted of an announcement to my mother (“OK David, be back for lunch”) followed by a tearing off down the tiny street that bordered our block of huts to a corner at the bottom of the hill. This was “the great beyond” in my one-year world-view, and terribly exciting to contemplate. I recall that I was laughing gleefully — but stopped short when one of the neighbors put her head out of her kitchen window and told me that I’d better get back home right away. I obliged, of course, and ran back laughing just as I had before.
This memory came back to me this past weekend at the Los Angeles Times Fesitval of Books. So many of the attendees were parents with ambulatory-age children. Every time I turned around a “Junior Citizen” — and future reader — was toddling forward with a mixture of wariness and glee across the UCLA campus, closely followed by its parental units. Well aware of this situation, the event organizers, have over its now ten-year history made ample provisions for it. Play and rest areas are specially designed for kids, with story-tellers and folk singers at hand. In fact the event has come to take the form of the city’s largest annual “play date.”
Needless to say it’s a “play date” for grown-ups as well, with bookstalls to visit and celebrity authors on hand to sign copies of their latest works. More important there were a whole series of panels and “personal appearance” events– two of which I participated in this year. On Saturday I was on one called “Hollywood: Behind the Camera” along with Scott Eyman (“Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer”), Leonard Maltin (no introduction needed), Maureen Orth (ditto), and David Rensin (“The Mailroom: Hollywood History From the Bottom Up.”) The I did a “one-on-one” with with Liz Smith whose latest book, Dishing I just reviewed. But, being an embarassment of riches as always, this meant that I couldn’t go to “From Aristo to Stonewall and Beyond: Gay Liberation and Beyond” featuring the great James McCourt or the “one-on-one” with Boondocks wiz Aaron McGruder.
I did, however, get in to a dynamite panel, “Lies Deceit and Cover-ups,” featuring Eric Alterman, John Dean, Maureen Dowd, Michael Shermer, Jon Wiener. It was quite an occasion what with various audience members having sundry political fish they longed to fry, in the wake of the exceedingly cold eye the panelists cast on — as Modo’s latest book would have it — Bushworld. I seized the opportunity to ask “Cobra Woman” (“Cobra” being BushCo’s name for Dowd) what she thought of Judy Miller’s chances of being sent to the slammer
the Martha Stewart wing of course, but the slammer nontheless.
She vouchsafed that they appeared to be quite good at the moment. And this moved John Dean to assert that Fitzgerald, the prosecutor, is nobody’s fool and there’s a story-behind-the-story yet to be revealed. (C-SPAN taped the event so watch for it on the schedule to see the whole thing.) I have no doubt he’s right.
“Hollywood: Behind the Camera” was naturally less flashy. But much fun was as Leonard spoke of the way serious film criticism has been almost entirely subsumed by adventising, and David Rensin adressed the manner in which agents and producers have become stars with “personal lives” for gossip fodder — inspiring me in turn to make mention of that most amusing of “Horizontal Hollywood” adepts, Steve Antin. Best of all, Maureen Orth (Mrs. Tim-MAH!) and I recalled the legendary disaster of the New York debut of The Cockettes (immortalized in a truly brilliant documentary) that became the template for 70’s “Celebrity Culture” in general and Studio 54 in particular. The famous and infamous who turned up at the Anderson theater that night (Leonard Bernstein, John Lennon, Helmut Berger, Robert Rauschenberg, the list goes on and on) were so intoxicating in and of themselves you scarcely needed a show –even though The Cockettes were far from negligible.
Truth to tell, some small measure of this sort of fun was available in the “Green Room” where Los Angeles unavoidables like Arianna Huffington and Michael York could be found right along with more interesting literary citizens like the dapper and affable Walter Mosley, the ever-bubbly John Rechy, the bloggeriffic James Wolcott, and the beyond sublime Eric Idle — whose only complaint was the huge amounts of “stuff” Python fans wanted him to sign. “They get on line with a book or two and then come back on it again with just about anything you can think of — photographs, record albums, theater programs. They never stop!”
Semi-exhausted as he was (and ever-so pleased that I didn’t launch into a verbatim reprise of the “Dead Parrot Sketch” or his own “Nudge-nudge, wink-wink, say-no-more”) Idle volunteered that he was as much surprised as he was pleased by the success of Spamalot — Broadway chewing up and spitting out musicals the way it has in recent years.
Elsewhere on the “Green Room” patio Peter Biskind was taking copious notes, even while being interviewed about his latest project — a biography of Warren Beatty. “You know,” I informed him,” Warren has kissed and kissed and kissed again, but he’s never told.”
“Yes I know,” said Biskind.
“And he’s a great seducer — not only of women, but of interviewers. He’s a master of changing the subject. Not to mention putting people on the defensive.
Charmingly of course.”
“I know that too.”
“I hope you’ve spoken to Gavin Lambert.”
“Well then you’re off to a good start.”
And that’s because Biskind knows just how hard it’s going to be. As coincidence would have it Mr. Beatty was one of the prime topics of conversation in my Liz Smith “on-on-one” — the other being Frank Sinatra (we swapped horror stories.)
A great fan of Mrs. Beatty, Liz asked her if the women in the hubster’s past concerned her. As you might expect, they didn’t. Julie Christie, Diane Keaton and lord knows how many other lovelies are part of a Warren that plays no part in Benning’s present. Moreover, having felled the mightiest oak in the forests of bachelorhood (I noted to Liz that you’ll find Warren’s picture in the dictionary under “Heterosexuality”) Benning is now something of a historical figure. I envy Biskind having High Tea with her.
But I don’t envy the Beyond Herculian effort he’ll have to expend in getting word one from Julie Christie, Diane Keaton.
Joan Collins may be less problematic.
But such is the fate of the ink-strain wretch, Hollywood division.
As for the “real” of the celebs that so fascinate us, Liz vouchsafed that she’s known Jane Fonda since she was 19, and witnessed her “re-inventing herself” every few years since then. So who’s the “real” Jane Fonda? Even Jane herself probably doesn’t know.
Her ex, Tom Hayden, was also at the Book Fair. But Jane’s memoirs weren’t on his lips — or I gather even in his thoughts. These days Hayden is far more concerned with other aspects of the 60’s, whose legacy hasn’t been at all understood as far as he’s concerned. And I quite agree with him. Speaking to a reporter researching the period for a film project, Hayden made mention of the fact that Lyndon Johnson had originally planned to call out the troops to deal with demonstrators at the legendarily tumultuous Democractic covention in Chicago in 1968, but dissention — and outright threats of mutiny in the ranks — made that impossible. “There were revolts amongst the soldiers in Vietnam too,” Hayden noted. But you won’t find much mention of that in the official histories. And when it comes to the “Chicago Seven” trial — documentation of which is just being made fully available — the press is content to report Abbie Hoffman’s antics, not anything else of interest and import that went on.
But there’s history and then there’s history, as I learned from the Hollywood panel when Scott Eyman dropped an inadvertent bombshell. It was common practice at MGM to have completed scripts passed around to any number of writers for additions and alterations. This was the case when Metro,in its infinite wisdom, decided that a Ring Lardner Jr. script be transformed into a Lana Turner vehicle — Marriage is a Private Affair.
“I spoke to Lardner by phone a week or so ago before he died, Eyman recalled.
“You could hear the oxygen machine in the background. And he was still upset that they gave the picture to Lana Turner!”
As every Gay Jeopardy player knows Marriage is a Private Affair is the favorite film of Myra Breckinridge. And the reason for that is that Myra’s personal secretary, Gore Vidal, was a very close friend of Tennesee Williams — one of the many uncredited scriptwriters who had a hand in the Robert Z. Leonard-directed feature, whose main distinction is a marvelous scene where Lana dances the Rhumba.
“I am currently embroidering a cinematic brassiere for Miss Lana Turner,” Tennessee wrote to Gore — who was forever tickled that the dramatic poet responsible for The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Summer and Smoke, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer and Camino Real once toiled for the famous “sweater girl.”
Then, as fate would have it Gore Vidal himself made an appearance on the last day of the event. Stepping out of the “Green Room” to go towards one of the other panels I spotted him being helped into a wheelchair and pushed up the ramp.
“Are you giving a speech here today sir?” I asked.
“No. No speech today.”
“Nothing at all? Not even a mot juste ?”
“Oh no,” Vidal replied, “No mot juste — just bitter juice!”
And with that he was off through the doors and down the all, his face flushed with the mixture of wariness and glee one associates with a one-year old who has just discovered his motor skills.
Monday notes *
Excerpt: The Times’ King-Drew series won the grand prize in today’s Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards…
Tracked: April 25, 2005 03:56 PM