Saturday, May 30, 2009

1B - Hope

"You must have strong feelings, and knowledge, about the theatre or we wouldn't be meeting," Hope said, moving onto the terrace and examining the flower pots which I can't really define. My floral awareness stops with Gertrude Stein's, 'Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.' I refer to the identification of begonia versus bougainvillaea rather than anything to do with the musical horticulture of Mama Rose in "Gypsy." Buzz turned on a sculpture fountain that upchucked a splashing stream from Cicero's puckered mouth. The fountain base had darting goldfish. Buzz tossed niblets into the pool and stretched out on some pillows. "Fresh air!" Hope exclaimed. "Keeps you sober. It's why I value my time in Wyoming. Sunshine, rich brown soil, craggy mountains, brooks and the sky -- Lynn Fontanne once said, 'The sky here, it's like a tiara.' I simply burst out laughing. She was making up dialogue."

"But tiara has originality. The standard line runs 'the sky was a shimmering tent,' " I offered. "It goes with, 'The lawn was a velvety blanket.' "

She shuddered. "Manicured is what they used to say. Oh god, if you live long enough you hear every word trashed." Like awesome. Today a friend sees a movie loaded with special defects and it's awesome or amazing. Someone slurps an over-priced chocolate mousse and it's awesome and amazing. I try to avoid those with a vocabulary of 400 words, but this becomes more difficult each day. Edith Wharton claimed that Americans suffered from imitative behaviour; it now extends to language. Just gimme some good old slang like the purity of the word: malarky.

My hand gripped her shoulder, gently. "Malarky, Hope." I stopped, realizing I hadn't before uttered her name.

"Yes, chappy. There's no malarky to Hope. And never confuse Hope with Faith, Felicity or Chastity." I had no idea what we were talking about. What a perfect afternoon.

We were both now a tad tipsy and plumped down on pillows like Buzz, with the champagne between us. I didn't say anything. I couldn't. You know that feeling? Well, I seldom do -- not unless I'm a little bit in love or intimidated. More champagne was poured and cigarettes lit. As I gulped the fresh air, she looked at me oddly as if to ask if I had a heart condition.

"Buzz told me you were from Los Angeles. At some point. Does that mean--" I quickly interrupted: "Yes. My entire family was in show business."

She seemed a little disordered. Was she hearing funereal organ music for prayer? And then she'd be forced to admit, as the pitiful tart says in Billy Wilder's "Ace in the Hole": Kneeling bags my nylons. It was time to put her at ease. "There were three ministers. My father and two brothers-in-law." Her face softened like pinkish spun sugar."I know all about religion from backstage. I've seen and heard too much, so I've only -- ever -- felt comfortable in a theatre, any kind, anywhere. Theatre is love. Church is sanctum of smug, smarmy, self-righteous bigotry coming from the most appalling 'pewed' people. Both are concepts of performance art."

"A life of extreme contrasts, with an amusement tax," Hope said, giving me a sweeping gaze of approval.

"A life of shadow and surface," I suggested. The substance is my intolerance of hypocrisy, naivete and sentimentality. Yet everything contradicts, because life is an irreverent comedy. It doesn't carry a tax, but it does have a price. And I am often overdrawn at the comedic bank. Fierce independence, personal fulfillment and romantic dreams spin off in wildly different directions. The worldling learns that there are no easy solutions in this hall of mirrors.

"Take care of the sense," Hope said, quietly, "and the sounds will take care of themselves." Quoting Lewis Carroll, a most favorite author, she said he was worldier, wiser, and, definitely wittier than Noel Coward. She'd known him in the '20s but they only worked together on the Hecht-MacArthur film, "The Scoundrel." He liked her, she said, "Because he knew I didn't give a damn and he did give a damn" -- specifically about his own celebrity. He took himself very seriously.

Speaking in her low, butter-milky voice, while Cicero still splashed and Buzz semi-snored, she recalled that Coward and Alexander Woollcott, the arrogant, snarly and hilarious critic-essayist and radio personality -- the pus bag who inspired "The Man Who Came to Dinner" by Kaufman & Hart -- had a rivalry mixed with admiration. At a weekend party, which Aleck hosted, Coward took stage center and purred that he'd finished a new play for the Lunts, and he would read the first act.

"Where?" Aleck demanded.

The play turned out to be a major flop called "Point Valaine." Noel Coward leaves a legacy of six enduring comedies of character -- outshining any comic playwright of the last 100 years (Neil Simon writes sitcoms). When Coward tries to be 'dramatic' he's a soggy scone and woefully sentimental. "Valaine," (1935) was a singular turkey for the Lunts: set on an island in the West Indies, Lynn Fontanne (a missionary's daughter) owned a hotel and Alfred Lunt was her #1 servant-lover. When she has an indiscreet dalliance with a guest, Lunt plays savagely on his accordian - I'm not making this up -as she musically growls, "Have you gone mad?" He quickly insists upon slobbering "--my kisses on your lips and my spittle on your face."


Then he leaps off a balcony to his death. Oh dear.

Coward later admitted that first-nighters were comatose and the experience strained his friendship, for a time, with the Lunts. (It might be a hit today with drag queen Charles Busch in the Fontanne role). They'd all met in the early '20s and speculation persists that "the boys" had a quick intermission. Coward later wrote the triangular sex comedy, "Design for Living," for the three of them. But throughout the long marriage and career of the Lunts there was never a smidgen of scandal. Biographers conclude -- and probably correctly -- that the stage provided a sex life. They smooched and cuddled which their female fans adored. So in love. Now that's enough. Lord Alfred and Lady Lynn. The stage was their entire life.

Hope Williams spoke fondly of Coward, with clear, crystal-like thoughts. "He was a prodigy -- aloof, almost alien. Before America entered World War 2, he was here for pro-British reasons, maybe a bit of Allied spying...We spent a weekend together in Fairfield, Connecticut, where his producer-manager Jack Wilson and his wife lived. She was a white Russian. Beautiful. Natasha Paley. Jack had stage-door johnnied Noel years earlier in London. Noel was captivated by this handsome, adoring Yalie. From lovers, they became friends and business partners until the '50s when Jack became alcoholic and Noel discovered financial mismanagement. Did you realize that Jack (John C. Wilson) 'directed' the original 'Kiss Me, Kate'? Until he got bloated, he had the pick of the incoming crop -- but nothing disturbed his marriage. If you must live with someone, it can be an ideal arrangement. It's an exchange of money, status, acceptablity, companionship. So much rot is written about the Happy Marriage, my god. I've never known any. I have observed pretense and couples playing 'let's pretend.' It's all nonsensical sentiment. It's not a state for which I have the slightest sympathy. The Hollywood Ending. It does't exist." She then spoke of the mariage blanc -- what the French call the 'marriage of convenience,' and how, in days when it wasn't simply convenient but required, it really worked : Cole & Linda Porter, producer Guthrie McClintic & Katharine Cornell, novelist-photographer Carl Van Vechten and actress Fania Marinoff -- all of whom were not only allies but also the best of friends.

"How do you feel about love?" she asked.

"Love or sex? Love is tough, sex is easy. Even educated fleas do it."

Buzz roused himself with a whooping stretch. "I heard every word you two said. C'mon, Hope, with whom did fat Aleck do it?"

"Woollcott?" she said dismissively. "He had the mumps as a youngster, so he couldn't do it."

"Mumps," Buzz sneered. "That entire Algonquin set musta had the mumps. KKerist! I exclude George Kaufman cuz Mary Astor's diary, read during her divorce, described his appendix." Buzz gave us a jaunty wink as he stumbled into the salon and headed toward the galley. We heard a clatter of pans from there, a few bumpity-thumps and I knew he had just collided with the unbreakable. High time for a pertinent movie review and how -- I believe -- Vernal Miller became Buzz Miller.

The Blue Dahlia (1946)

The one original screenplay by Raymond Chandler, esteemed by the British literati as a brilliant writer, though viewed by many US critics as just another hard-boiled technician. He wasn't interested in adapting his own novels; the idea of reworking his material bored him stiff. Chandler was under contract to Paramount which needed a new movie for its box-office hottie, Alan Ladd, immediately. Ladd began his career in radio because he was so small. His height differs, according to the account. Five feet 5 inches or 6 inches. One inch makes a big difference. He had scored earlier as a gangster whose demeanor was far removed from the thuggish features of George Raft. Critics applauded his emotionless, unsmiling, "cold angel face," the Sunday School boy as a killer. He was teamed with Veronica Lake who was just over five feet. Ray Chandler called her Moronica Lake.

Chandler did a treatment and before a line was written the film went into production. "How do I get myself into these jams?" he asked. Soon the shoot caught up with pages coming from Chandler. What to do? He made a Faustian bargain. He'd scribble at home - round the clock - on vitamins and alcohol if the studio provided Nurses & Secretaries & Limos to hustle over pages as he pulled them from his typewriter. At end, he collapsed. The film was a smash hit, but the War Department, it's said, demanded plot changes. It didn't want returning vets suffering from nightmares. So, the killer of Ladd's unfaithful wife turns out to be a sleazy house detective, and the film became, in Ray's view, "another whodunit." In Chandler's script, vet Alan Ladd has a wounded war bud, William Bendix, with a steel plate in his noggin'. Now and then he hears an awful "buzzzzing noise." He's nicknamed Buzz. When the "monkey music" goes off, he kills the rouged dame who's servicing servicemen. "They say the film is good," Chandler said, adding: "Good original screenplays are almost as rare in Hollywood as virgins."

If you forget the watered-down ending, it's cynical, kick-in-the-teeth fun, and you get to hear Buzz order a bourbon straight -- with a bourbon chaser! (I'm reminded that Tallulah's last words are said to be, "Bourbon! Morphine!") Anyway, by the time Vernal completed his first dance audition he was Buzz Miller and this happened shortly after "The Blue Dahlia" opened. Our Buzz was starting to uncork yet another bottle of champagne, but Hope Williams urged him to save it for another day - giving me a meaningful glance, as I myself hiccoughed. We stacked the pillows and returned glasses and snacks to the circular table. Buzz was at the bookcase again, pulling out a book of memoirs by Noel Coward and pointing at Hope. "He calls this lady 'beguiling' -- godamnit --"a brilliant but disappointingly brief stage career.' Now, listen: 'her lack of ego lured her away to gentler pleasures.' " He stopped reading. His eyes teared. We can all talktalktalk and still be misunderstood.

"Buzz, I wanted gentler pastures. You must tell Paul - sometime - about Eva Tanguay." Then to me: "He has scrapbooks." Buzz turned pale, clammed up. "Naw. She was a pervert. You just wanna change the subject."

"I like perverts," I gambled. "It simplifies matters. Take my word for it."

Hope moved to the door. I wondered if I'd see her again. "Buzz has my number." An address book wouldn't fit into her purse. And I was too shy to offer her mine; besides, she knew where to reach me or how. Hope squeezed my hand. "Chappy, the hardest thing to do is look at your own soul. Damn few do. Cause damn few are even alive." She brushed my cheek, then hurried down the steps to the foyer door. "There's no universal code or view of life," she murmured, "other than the importance of freedom. And we know that. A line from 'Holiday.' Life's a grand little ride, if you take it yourself." Her blue eyes imparted overbred wisdom. I wanted more, a lot more.

Very gracefully, Hope Williams slipped away.

(End Part 1)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

1A - Hope (cont)

"There's no use in knocking," said the Footman. "I'm on the same side of the door as you...and they're making such a noise inside, no one could possibly hear you." -- Lewis Carroll

Hope Williams extracted a silver cigarette case from her pint-size handbag. She was a worldling who didn't tote bottles of water, sandwiches, a makeup kit, address books, body sprays, laxatives, vitamins and a change-of-underwear within her equipage. If she ever rode a subway, which I doubted, she wouldn't slug you with an over-shoulder vanity trunk. Buzz was already smoking one of his allegedly low-nicotine killers that tasted and smelled like a rancid peach.

"Want one?" she asked, in that butterscotch voice of hers, liquid and milky, with raisins of irony. "Want one," I repeated, dreamily. Frankly, I've never gotten a reaction from cigarettes, but, in a civilized society they provide a flawless accessory. Cancer of the whatever? Hell! Sacrifices must be made. A society is judged by how it accessorizes.

"I was once asked to play Sibyl in a stage version of 'Dorian Gray.' I was too old, Sibyl too boring. And the script? It already had three nervous breakdowns. But I engraved one line on my thigh. " 'A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite and it leaves one unsatisfied.' " She raised her eyes toward heaven. She raised her shoulders too. "It really doesn't satisfy me either." With a silver lighter, she had us both puffing away.

"That's my upstairs baby, Paul, doing bad things," Buzz muttered, adding another color to his ice-tea. "He resists--" then he stopped, and I knew potential trouble was ahead. A dangerous smile played on his face. I quickly added that I wanted to hear about Hope Williams in Cole Porter's show "The New Yorkers" (1930). Actually it was a revue, a musical form that dominated Broadway in the 20s and 30s just as TV revues had huge audiences in the 50s and 60s. A mix of actors, singers, clowns in topical sketches. Showgirls, too, swirling in cobwebby costumes.

"Aw, fuck Cole Porter,' Buzzie slurred.

"Yes, darling, do," Hope went on, without skipping a beat. "But first, open another bottle of champ. And don't get -- you know -- pissy with me or my cowboys will chew you up." I feared the metaphor might overstimulate him, but Buzz trundled off dutifully to the galley. The revue, "The New Yorkers," is famous for introducing the randy ballad, 'Love for Sale.' Originally sung by a nubile woman, it crosses gender lines and, today, the entire ethnic rainbow. Back in the '30s, the critics were offended --as they would be even now -- although most currently pop lyrics are gibberish of no known language. It still carries shock:

Love that's fresh and still unspoiled,
Love that's only slightly soiled,
Love for sale.

Who will buy?
Who would like to sample my supply?
Who's prepared to pay the price
For a trip to paradise?
Love for sale.

Club entertainer Barabara Cook, once a sylphide and now a mirthful of girth, says she finds Cole Porter too arch. The obese Cookery is School Teacher dull with a tweety voice, but, to borrow from Dorothy Parker and her ilk, I submit that she suffers from fallen archness. The Porter revue jumped from a diving board into a pool of amorality. How's this? Swanky Hope Williams was impressed because her cute bootlegger knew how to kill; dado flaunted a mistress and mummie paraded a lover. An idealized American Family. The zany Jimmy Durante, whose "Schnoze" or "Schnozzola" sniffed every sin, rasped that Park Avenue was where bad women walked good dogs. He brought frantic panache to the haute ambisextrous. "Its silliness marked the end of an era," Hope said.

The revue ran five months. Meantime, The Bank of United States with 400,000 depositors folded, along with 1,300 other banks. Park Avenue, Fifth Avenue, the nether avenues were crowded with appetizing old love, new love for sale.

If you want to buy my wares
Follow me and climb the stairs,
Love for sale.

Buzz settled down on the couch, taking Hope with him. In his hands a big red-ribboned scrapbook. Glasses had been refilled with appealing fluids. "I drank a lot in the show," Hope said. "Durante asks with a leer, Are you wet? Then I reply, 'I'm so wet if you blow on me I'll ripple.' " Her delivery , pacing, emphasis -- caused me to jab a bunny tooth of mine into the smoked salmon. I was glad it didn't squirt like a cherry tomato.

Buzz's eyes glazed with mischief. You know how people are: enough about others, it's Time to Talk About Them. "Alan and I have kept this book for the last 15 years," he announced proudly, carefully
opening the scrapbook as if it were a catalogue from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I knew the scrapbook. Once, when I had been given the apartment and was preparing a party, I found it positioned on the desk. Now I don't believe in poking into drawers or closets; Pandoro's Box is a cautionary legend. A warning. But here was this Thing. It was Christmas and it was tied with a bright Christmassy ribbon. Left for me, as a tempting delight? Memorable quotes from Hegel, Kant, Mallarme, a soupcon of Schopenhauer? A recipe from Waverley Root for gratin dauphinois, for example? ('The potatoes are then put into an earthenware dish which has been rubbed with garlic ..and sprinkled with grated Gruyere...') Well, why not, open. It's just a scrapbook, after all. Don't we all keep scrapbooks? I don't. I keep diaries, but --- what's this? The book was a compilation of nude photographs, taken through the years, of Enbas exercising unbridled passion. With unbridled expertise.

The rascals. They wanted me to see them -- almost in their prime, and ponder a model for Life by their organic structure. I was amused by their sentimental truancy. For they thought of me as The Kid upstairs who maintained a privacy that carried, in actuality, more fictional pretense than eccentricity. With notorious nonchalance I retied the book. They'd never know it had been opened. Of course, I made of botch of the damn red bow, but -- if questioned, ever -- I have a knack for evasion. It was their mischievous prank.

Hope Williams, with subtle, yet wholesome cordiality, turned the pages -- with the gaze of an art appraiser. "Now, here -- I really can't see Alan's face," she said, her butterscotch voice melting."You, Buzz, are so pliable, rather like a hot, salted pretzel, don't you think?" Um, uh-huh, the pages turned. "Oh, here's an imitation of laying an egg!" She closed the book, then with aristocratic aloofness, puffed on her cigarette. "Simple pleasures," she said. "Now, why did you take these pictures?"

"Christmas cards for Unicef," I piped up. "The dove of peace is getting a bit stale."

Buzz, suddenly a freckled, teenaged Vernal, whacking away at sagebrush in Arizona -- if there was any; my knowledge of the terrain is nil -- offered: "As a document of our life together, so, when we get really old, people could see us when we were young." Just a traditional family scrapbook for the children.

"That's not good enough," said Hope. "You really must give this to the Kinsey Institute. Here's a masterpiece of sexual activity. I know an executive there, I'll tell him about it."

"Aw, don't be a cunt." Buzzie was now sozzled.

Hope flung herself against the faux-marbre fireplace, arms extended. "Cunt?" She made it sound like croissant. "You speak metaphorically. You've never seen one in your life. You told me that years ago. You just like the sound of the word, I don't mind. In England, it's used as often as skittles or beer and chips. Or the overused word Please. 'Please, stop being a bloody cunt.' Yes, it has a certain musicality." I thought: the show is on!

Hope radiates what Brooks Atkinson, the drama critic of The New York Times, called a "comic incandescence" when he reviewed her in Philip Barry's 1928 hit, "Holiday." We're familiar with the title today because of George Cukor's fine film transfer, costarring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. I find it superior to "The Philadelphia Story" which Barry tailored for Hepburn -- Hope's understudy in "Holiday." Both women, and the Barry roles they played, were smart, non-conformist society rebels who did exactly as they pleased, pausing briefly for a marital spin. "I don't particularly believe in marriage," Hepburn once said. "It's an artificial relationship because you have to sign a contract." Hepburn also saluted Hope Williams as the most fascinating personality of the '30s and observed that she learned a lot from watching her onstage. On and offstage, Hope was clear-headed and sparkling; she was herself. Philip Barry's stage description of Linda Seton -- or, the Hope Williams he knew -- reads: slim, rather boyish, exceedingly fresh. Critic Brooks Atkinson concluded, "The style of Linda Seton is definitely hers." So much bosh is written about Acting and Styles Thereof when, in fact, the scribblers and their fans are beguiled by gnashing chompers of scenery. Years ago the playwright J. M. Barrie noted, 'If you have charm, you really don't need to have anything else; and if you don't have it, it doesn't matter what else you have.' In a world of charmless people and charmless actors, Hope Williams had charm that positively fizzed. Another point: the lasting actors have Personality. It is this element that endows them with power, memorability -- and Star Quality.

(to be cont.)

Saturday, May 16, 2009

1 - Heavenly Hope

"Would you like to meet Hope Williams?' The question was casually posed, almost with shyness, by my downstairs neighbor Buzz Miller, who, with his longtime partner, art dealer Alan Groh, was responsible for my tenancy in a West Village atelier that reminded me of Paris, where I learned a lot, loved a lot, lost -- no, not a lot, because -- depending on your sense of l'amour propre there was nothing to lose at all. Now the phrase l'amour propre has many meanings. So, let your imagination go.

Enbas, as I called the chaps, since they lived on the parlor floor, played concierge of the historic brownstone: they screened for the owner rental potentials; they also had a secret peephole, which let them see who came and went and with whom, and under what circumstances -- if they heard footsteps. I quickly invested in triple-sole shoes. Of course, sometimes a floorboard under the rug creaked. Then I'd sprint up our spiral staircase which is exactly like the one in a film noir by the same title. Actually I enjoyed this little game. There are only eight flats here and no matter who moves in or out, it seems, you never see anyone in the halls or on the staircase. We're self-employed by multinational corporations, I deem plausible, and get paid for the most dangerous tasks.

A doctor once owned the building. He lived with his hypochrondriac wife a few blocks away. He was a true geezer; you just had to know how to make chit with him when you handed over your monthly check. The Wife was rarely seen and always in a wheelchair. Once I foolishly offered to push her across the street. The chair handles slipped away from me when we hit a pothole. She went carooming down University Place, screaming, while I, near convulsion, tried to catch the chaise before it slammed into Deutsche Haus at Washington Mews. "Horrid thing," she exclaimed, giving me the gimlet eye. "But life is like that!" she burped, fingering her rigid beehive. I am now opposed to all philanthropic deeds. Enbas explained that The Wife didnt like sex which is why, shortly after her marriage many years earlier, she became bedridden like Barbara Stanwyck in "Sorry, Wrong Number." We know how that Ended. So the doctor, with his sickly wife and god knows what sort of business -- amputations, I daresay - depended on Enbas to give apartment supplicants the usual financial, social and physical examinations. On a summery day they might well ask, Dont you want to cool off? Here, give me your shirt... It was a blustery wintry day when I signed the lease.

Now Enbas had an extraordinary habitation.

It was just two Whartonian-sized salon rooms facing an enclosed leafy Venetian garden. There was a bath filled with condiments to rub, squeeze, sponge up or insert, and a narrow galley that only accomodated two and a-half persons at once. But the best cooks I've met have always worked in the smallest of kitchens. It's only in suburbia where greedy builders bamboozle owners with electronic and marbelized ghastliness, with sanitarium flourescent lighting, that you find kitchens of roller rink dimension. It's an American affliction that indicates no one at home really knows the difference between meat and fowl, pastry and pudding. The culinary skills are fraudulent. It's strictly frozen food, take-out or worse: pot-luck.

Furniture in the Enbas salons was a marvelous mix-&- dont-match -- not a match & match you see in the feeble-minded Home Decor sheets which exist only to promote harebrained interior designers. A plummy sofa faced a circular glass dining table; iron chairs, footstools, the odd heavily cushioned wing chair or high-backed bench sat alongside a mahogany desk. Wooden folding screens, found in a Louisiana flea market, partially divided the main room. The smaller adjoining salon presented a low pillowed daybed, which was a lot more than that. (I always said, 'If that bed could talk.' Now it's mine). Elsewhere there was a discreet TV, and a rectangular walnut table with recovered thrift shop chairs. Both rooms were elegant and hothouse sexy. They suggested that anything could happen, and it often did. I must dutifully add that the items including bric-a-brac and artful objets were of theatrical, drawing-room comedy scale. So you walked onto and into a "stage set," with dim, rose-hued lighting. Finally, a glass-paned door led onto a wooden-slat deck with slat steps to a stone and gravel garden where rose and lilac bushes bloomed. Scattered lounge chairs and side-tables. It's important to 'set the scene,' for Enbas created an Environment -- a kind of installation art piece that guests craved to visit and never wanted to leave. I had a second set of keys because, 'you're the only person we fully trust,' they said, and when they went away for the summer or Christmas holidays, I was encouraged to entertain there. Enbas were an important part of my life, even when hellzapoppin' mischief was afoot.

We maintained a certain inhouse formality. No knocking on doors for yesterday's paper or extra lumps of sugar. We communicated by telephone between four floors. I was writing about the theatre and movies and art, and they knew people who knew people. Sometimes the people overlapped. I had just seen on TV the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur oddity, "The Scoundrel," an independent film made at the Astoria Studios in the the mid-'30s. It's the first movie in which Noel Coward starred as a snotty but smart publisher who destroyed men and women who made him jealous or simply fussed him up. He was preposterous as a heart-breaker. Leland Hayward who soon became one of the most successful Broadway producers was then their agent. The two were known for their comedies "The Front Page" and "Twentieth Cenutry." He got them an indie deal and they became the first hyphenates. Hayward's disdain for movies, recalls Hecht, won him respect from the moguls. 'They felt that a man so full of sneer must be peddling a superior kind of wares. All that he peddled was a superiority complex.'

"The Scoundrel" is a fabulous mess, with wisecracker lines. Coward is killed in a plane crash but like Billy Bigelow in 'Carousel' is given a day on earth to make a plea for forgiveness. I vaguely remember him underwater ....after the crash, gurgling or farting, perhaps both, with immense hauteur nonetheless. What keeps this rubbish from oblivion is the delicious performance by an actress named Hope Williams who plays the meanie's ex-girlfriend. She can take the twerp or leave him. Hers isnt a big role, but Hope was really heavenly. Blonde and bobbed with a throaty voice, Hope, then into her 30s, could whack a line like a ping-pong ball and watch it scamper -- with utter gravitas -- until it was bonked, haplessly to the net. When asked about her Atlantic crossing, she says, 'It was nice.' A tolerant smile: 'I love storms.' Then moves away with an air of patrician distraction. Who was this wonderful creature? I reported my discovery to Buzz. He looked mysterious, elfish. But weeks later he phoned, asking if I'd like to meet her. Why not?

During the '50s Buzz Miller had simply been the sexiest male dancer on Broadway. Everyone, from all three sexes, agreed: 'He's so butch.' Today it sounds campy. Today you'd say hunky, but butch defines Buzzie in any era. He was a farm boy, born in the sticks: Snowflake, Arizona. Throughout his life, regardless of age, he radiated candid, fresh as newly-mown hay features with a sandy thatch of Huckleberry Finn hair. He had a hesitant, diffident manner, except when he was dancing, and a lean, muscular frame. He was 'the kid next door' in Snowflake, always. It gave him an aura of errant innocence that audiences loved. Wounded during the Battle of the Bulge in World War 2, he was later hospitalized for months and then devilishly restless, bored stiff, as he tells it, 'I took some college courses and drifted west to Hollywood, where a lot of soldiers went....I hung around the studios and, one day, I wandered into an audition for dancers. I'd just been to the beach, so I put on my trunks. Ok, what could I do? Well, I could jump. I had to leap over landmines in the war and land on my feet. I knew how to move. I was really -- limber.' He made an impression. A new career began for Vernal Miller -- his real name -- of Snowflake. He was in a slew of movie musicals, wooing Marilyn Monroe in 'Heat Wave' from "There's No Business Like Show Business" and on Broadway, most notably, in "The Pajama Game," sizzling in 'Steam Heat,' which he repeated in the film version. He became great pals with Gwen Verdon and settled down with the choreographer Jerome Robbins for five years. In the late 50s a peculiar moppet named Andy Warhol hung outside the stagedoor at the Imperial Theatre where Buzz did a show-stopping tango with Verdon in a murder-mystery musical called "Redhead." Warhol wanted his autograph. He swooned over Vernal who was now most assuredly Buzz. Warhol worshipfully followed him to late-night bars and clubs. Then a commercial artist, he would thrust drawings on Buzz, which he kept. 'Andy was always there, in a corner, very quiet, he spoke in a whisper. He gave me some drawings of shoes. They were wicked. I liked them.' Buzz was amused by his celebrity, although he lost interest in long-run shows. He heard about a special woman -- Hope Williams -- who was teaching cooking, if she'd accept you. Hope, he learned, was a society worldling of the '20s who'd inspired and starred in Philip Barry plays and a Cole Porter musical. She could do anything she wanted; she was rich. Broadway bored her. She retired from the theatre in 1939. But theatre friends still included Tallulah Bankhead, Kate Hepburn. And like them, she didn't give a damn what people thought about anything.

When I met Hope Williams she was in her early 80s and a complete charmer. Initially reserved she gradually relaxed and I 'saw' the debutante who'd attended the Brearley School, was a member of the Junior League, and then married for a few years to a doctor who died in a plane crash after their divorce. They had remained close; she was his sole heir. Buzz served them both ice-tea -- well, I believe it was ice-tea. He tried to stay on the wagon. When sloshed he would swoop into the attack, verbally and physically. His war wound left him with a steel plate in his head. His squiffed behaviour made it seem like he had a whole set of dishes up there. Sober he was a meek lamb. 'You want a vodka?' he asked me. 'Fix yourself one -- you know how to, you know where it is.' I fixed. A platter of smoked salmon with toast points was placed on a coffee table.

'Do you have any champagne?' Hope asked matter-of-factly. 'It goes so well with smoked salmon, don't you think?'

When he went off to the bar, she added, 'I don't care if it's warm, if it's a good champagne.'

She smiled enigmatically and fiddled with a silver bracelet. She wore grey woollen slacks and a long-sleeved silk blouse. Very little makeup. A 40s turban encased her hair. I'm sure it was a turban she had indeed worn in the 40s. Very chic. When Buzz presented her with a flute, she teased, 'Darling, you funny streptococcus.' Shades of a Philip Barry play. The critics saw her in 1927 in Barry's "Paris Bound," a cocktail about adultery where the wife observes she may have lost her dignity and the husband replies, 'That's not serious.' The following year Hope Williams took acting honors in "Holiday," a role written for her, as the nonconformist rich girl Linda Seton who realizes that her conventional sister doesn't understand hero Johnny Case at all -- he wants to make a million while young and then retire, get away from it all, to hell with making more millions. "Barry -- whose wife was very comfortable -- wondered how one adjusted to money and also marriage," she said. 'I didn't adjust. It's a losing compromise.' Crunching on a toast point, I ventured, 'I never intend to face that compromise, or living with anyone. But getting away from it all, that's why I split from New York, and moved to Paris. Getting away is freedom.'

Freedom, Hope allowed firmly, was most important of all. 'Yes...' she sighed. 'It usually takes money or access to money.' A pregnant silence smothered the salon. 'It's good to go far, but, dont go too far,' she added, eyes grazing me. Changing the subject she spoke of her vast ranch -- over 1,000 acres in Wyoming -- where she fished and went horseback riding for years, with guests Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and Tallulah Bankhead. Buzz had told me that Tallu as a youngster in New York, had been smitten, hopelessly, by an equally young, derring-do-it-all Hope Williams. It made perfect sense. Do what you want with whomever you want. And stay friends. Carnality and frivolity. In those days, you sometimes had to have been married -- once -- but it's not so different today. How many embrace the mariage-blanc?

(to be cont.)

Monday, May 11, 2009


The infamous & famous in my special sphere insist that I get my thoughts on record, as of May 12, 09, and since Nurse Curtis is here to mix my vodka & absinthe drip, I think this is a keen idea. I am willing to admit that character is Fate: I have a great talent to annoy, a wee talent to amuse.

As a first effort, this will be short... Patience, ducks -- if this 'clicks' you'll get more and the beguine will have begun.