A Handful of Anomalies by Coleman Dowell

BOMB 13 Fall 1985
013 Fall 1985
Alan Scarritt 001

Alan Scarritt, A.D., 1985, fingerpaint, spray paint, enamel, magnetic tape on rag paper, 39 × 48 inches. Courtesy Exit Art.

I have never abided by a clear logic and so I had my nervous breakdown before and not after I met David Merrick. How I met him is not the point; the point is a David Merrick lies in wait for all people like me, to try to round off in our adult lives what murderous brothers and incestuous uncles were not able to complete in our childhoods because we somehow learned to grow fast and outgrew them. I have sometimes wondered if Merrick was in fact a result of my breakdown, one of its abiding phantoms, peculiar to me and the aftermath of my illness; but too many people have seen him for that to be quite so, though many of those claim that they too believe him to be an hallucination. But before I say anything unkind about Mr. Merrick let me state emphatically that I think he made a real contribution to the Amurrican Theater. Consider “Happy Hunting” for a moment. And the rise in seat prices. “Maria Golovin”! That tremendous write-off kept him solvent, one heard. The theater was to David Merrick what dog manure is to Mare Edward Koch: a chance for self-aggrandizement. His productions, with a few exceptions, were like Koch’s Trump Towers: high places from which to get a better look at themselves in the waters below. I knew Merrick; I knew him very well; there was a time when instructions were given to his wife that I was the only person to be admitted into their hotel suite. I was to be his Rodgers and Hammerstein rolled into bite-size hors d’oeuvres and sprinkled with a mince of Cole Porter. He managed to give me 50 dollars a week for a while, this to be taken from my ‘advance,’ through collusion with the really corrupt Local 802: he told them I was a cello player, I told them I could not even hold the instrument properly, they gave me membership as a cellist, and I was put on a payroll, member of a mythic orchestra in a theater housing non-musical comedy. This thing of theaters maintaining so-called orchestras on their payrolls even though a drama is playing the house is a union, and not a Merrick idea; but it could have been a Merrick idea, it bore his unmistakable stamp. But before I enter the intricacies, like the figure in the carpet, of the Merrick mind, I must return to my own mind and its excursion below the border (‘… everyone goes South every now and then’—Billy Joel)

I was still writing for television and had been on it myself, a brief appearance on Roberta Quinlan’s NBC show. Miss Quinlan was then the highest paid TV performer, a pretty girl with a small lilting voice and the easy manner of someone performing at home. She introduced a song of mine, a publicity gimmick to get us both in LOOK Magazine. Following my few minutes on camera I was tailed on the street for weeks by two adolescent girls one of whom was certifiably crazy; it was her aim to kill me; she told me so whenever she got near enough to speak softly. The other one soothed her friend and assured me that the girl was just kidding. The crazy one, spying me far down a street, would let out a yell—”There’s that television actor!”—and stick out a great fat tongue, and from whatever distance I would hear the vibrations of her Bronx cheer. Once when I came out of a house where I had dined I saw them lurking back in the shadows of Carl Shurtz Park and the cry the mad one (assuming the other was just a tiny bit sane) gave was the whimper of a hunting dog when it first catches the scent of the quarry.

Certainly the awareness of those two lurking around contributed to my total insomnia which had begun with the birth of the child. I would lie awake feeling endangered because I believed he was. I thought he would instinctively know that his father was not the one who held him, nor his mother the one who obviously could not suckle him. My conviction grew in the night like something poisonous that as soon as the switch had been made in London, from Kitty to her mother, he had known the despair of desertion and that it would disfigure him, split his personality. And it came about that when I thought of him I could not think without effort of a singular being, for it was as if I had been the father of twins, one of them invisible, the doppelganger of his brother. This shadow-baby had remained with Kitty, in her arms, and all his lifelong our son would look back and envy his shadow. And I would see the shadow child growing up between Kitty and the one who was supposed to have been me but was a travesty and both the shadow boy-man and the visible son would sense me as one senses a ghost, or a limb that has been removed.

I lived as a shadow with someone for a while, himself so vague that I can only recall his last name, which was Mayer. His apartment was in the Village somewhere but finding it each time was a mild surprise. It was a place to which I went because I was needed there, needed to lie upon the bed before the fire and be worshiped. The walls of the room were a shade of black-purple called charcoal purple and the firelight threw shadows upon them and the ceiling which I contemplated through the hours of ritual, which however long could never satiate the young man. He fed upon me, but sweetly, as I had fed upon Kitty; and yet he could not move me. His need could draw me back to him nearly every night but I was unmoved by his yearning. He was driven into panic by my remoteness, so afraid of losing me that I left him. When I went to leave the key in the apartment I found upon the hearth many pages of philosophical ravings, some of which I believed I understood; but that I was their dark heart left me unmoved.

As part of my progression South I will include here the beginnings of a story I tried to make of the events and moods of that time. (And if South means madness it must also stand for the direction I was taking from music toward fiction, for my daily notations were no longer of songs alone but of themes which could only be developed in prose. I have them still, boxes and boxes of themes and ideas and, often, spurious journal entries of a person unknown to me but—how shall I put it—beginning to be suspected; that is, the journal entries of the writer I was to become, all the events of whose life would need to be invented, or evolved.)

Here is the fragment, 32 years old as I write this on June 27, 1984:

It was really amazing to me the way they all shut up when I walked into the room, as though they had been talking about me. Which was impossible, for I knew no one there. I had told Lal that I would meet her there at such and such an hour, a necessary vagueness because I had forgot to write down the time and, as usual, I had forgot the name of the hour. In this time and place—winter, city—the hours look so much alike that it is impossible to recall their names. I could actually only name four to begin with: Dawn, Noon, Dusk, Midnight. These are the Stars, so to speak, and one makes obeisance to their fame. Still, at times in the past I have been confused about two of them when we met, for Dawn and Midnight often dress alike and wear the same air of weariness, a fashionable pose. In the light of winter even Noon and Dusk can be mistaken for each other.

I walked into the room or rather onto the balcony which overlooks the room and cast my gaze about for Lal. It was then the assemblage fell into a musing kind of silence, all with faces lifted upward to where I stood. It was highly embarrassing for me, those, as it turned out, several moments, and the only way I could bring them to an end was to break a glass gently against the railing. The pieces fell softly to the carpeting below and I was left holding the stem from which intimations of its former shape grew like memory.

They all turned away then and began to talk, chattering animatedly as though they had got what they were waiting for. Regret is foolish, but I do not shy away from it because of that, and I was regretful that I did not (had not thought to) seize the opportunity to confide in them. Suppose I had said to them, when I held them in thrall, said simply and without accusation or self-pity, merely confiding to faces that might take on other aspects: of friendliness or at least of interest—suppose I had said, “When I went to put on my shoes this morning someone had put small snakes in them, one in each.” Having caught at their imaginations I could then have gone on to the other more difficult phenomena, more difficult because small snakes are readily available in the shops, and my apartment, I have come to believe, is even more accessible, for shops have hours at which they close and my apartment, apparently, has not. That I have difficulty finding it is no indication that others have the same trouble. From the debris and artifacts left behind them, it is in fact clear that they find my place easier to get to and use than their own. Someone, not I, certainly, is overly fond of absinthe and my well-known even temper has been severely tried by evidence of such gluttony. Sometimes pills are left scattered on the hearthrug along with dangerous looking pieces of charred wood and I have found booklets of fine paper on my coffee table, and once, in an ashtray, a little pipe of good workmanship, Far Eastern, I would have thought.

But these, for all the carelessness of the charred wood on the rug, are appurtenances of civility and I do not quarrel with them beyond questioning their right to have been placed there in my absence. The blood filled stocking in my bathroom sink is another matter, as is the noose above my bed, so precisely hung that when I put myself on the bed beneath it and then sit up abruptly, it fits about my face and beneath my chin like an old-fashioned bonnet with tie strings.

These are the least of the phenomena which have accumulated in my apartment as though I shared it (such is the evidence of another’s fetish-filled life) with someone(s) of Collier Brothers persuasion. The newspapers with circled headlines pertaining to murders—stacks of these. The esoteric knife with gutting hook, the rare-looking firearms, the cache in my hall closet of grenades. And the bottles with alcohol-buoyant chancres. These last assault my vision with never-diminishing loathsomeness when I open my medicine cabinet. Once I could bring myself to examine them I saw that they had been removed from whatever source with the greatest skill, the tissue so neatly severed and trimmed that a great surgeon might have had cause to be envious.

One bottle contains an eye, blue, that revolves from the vibrations of the opening cabinet door, which has to be jerked apart from the facing to which it clings like a lover. The eye circles its bottle as though its business, like Emily Dickinson’s were circumference. In a moment of levity it occurred to me that it was there to keep watch on the chancres, which might otherwise … but I do not know what chancres not under strict surveillance do. That blue eye can see in the dark, I am sure of this, and thus it may be a noble experiment, or part of an experiment whose goals are lofty. The evolving, even in a bottle, of an eye that could see in the dark must be ranked with the search for fuel, in a place where darkness and cold are on the increase at a gallop.

Much later, with health restored, I saw the foregoing as an unconscious parody of a Poe fragment and tried, thrifty Scot that I am, to salvage it, and though the attempt was finally abandoned, I will include it here for it contains the seeds of self-commentary which would grow into what some have called my ‘style,’ and certainly contains my first try at polemics.

Continuing the above:

I dislike these bizarrities for another reason quite apart from their intrinsic nastiness. The blood in the stocking, the chancres, noose, floating eye, evidence of drug use and alcoholism, snakes, hints of amnesia, and terminal hostility and small acts of violence, are among the trappings of a kind of literature I disliked even in its heyday, which coincided with my youth and was the despair of it: the southern gothic novel.

I was born southern but with a mind capable of coolness and logic, which, it seemed at the time, was not shared by any of the young writers who were then making their mark. “Story tellers,” they were called, sometimes in defense, more frequently in offense, and I had to agree because when I was a child a story teller was a liar. Over the years I met several of these story tellers who had gone on to great reputations and discovered that they were liars in life as well as in literature, which severely affected for me their worth as artists. The projections of a reasonably balanced mind into that of, say, a murderous madman, when convincingly pulled off, is a feat worthy of attention, whereas the recital of his deeds by a real madman who has committed murder belongs in court, psychiatrists’ offices, Kraft-Ebing, and may even make what’s called compulsive reading, but is not, I think, literature. Equally, a person who lies out of compulsive need and has managed to learn to type does not add up to art, literature, or even skill except where the typing is concerned.

I am a border state southerner with connections on the Delta, and I am aware of the considerable differences in the quality of life in the two places, mainly as pertains to respect for laws in what might be called high places, a touchy subject since the decline and fall of Washington, but I am now referring to the good ol’ days, or to the time of illusion that there were any such. It was during that time that the Southern gothic novel caught hold of the nation’s willingly neurotic attention and this spawned such excess that a Nero/Caligula/de Sade would have fainted with envy at the recountals of daily life below the Mason-Dixon line.

Every state has mouldering old houses, measureless swamps, dwarves, idiots, and drag queens, but below the M. D. line this apparently is status quo for the average crossroads village. There amnesiacs wander swinging bloodfilled stockings, drinking into one corner of the mouth and smoking dope out of the other, with a chancre in a jar and a murder-headlined newspaper wrapped around a piece of bacon and cold cornbread, heading on home to lie beneath that symbolical noose and wonder what time it is. They’re nearly always missing something—an eye, for example—and somebody else down the road has got it, if not in a jar, then impaled and sticking up from a pincushion, or in a pretty little box. Snakes slither about and get in Aunt Shug’s shoes, which accounts for the frequent screams heard in Southern houses. This all may, indeed, be Deep South behavior. The snakes are surely real. And when Deep Southerners come up Nawth they go crazy at the big Yankee party and break something, shriek out something unintelligible that the folks back home would be able to interpret, or dive out a window tormented to death by memory and incestuous longing in the shape of a bird. Sometimes, if the neighborhood doesn’t run to large terminal parties, the Southerners get their necks twisted in tenement staircases by uppity Nigras. In a more peaceful time, in the compassionate imagination of a southern sympathizer, one of them actually got away and went back home and ate peaches, high up in a leafy window with sexy, innocent boys below calling to her in soft voices.

However, it’s pointless to postpone with young scribblings the onset of my very real sickness, and so here goes.

I lived with a pack of actors for a while, in Alexander Woolcott’s old house beyond Ninth Avenue. The ground floor was a rehabilitation center for the insane. There were several floors, many rooms, a handsome drawing room in which Mrs. Pat Campbell had stolen food for her dog, in her dilapidation not wondering why she found upon the tea tray such things as would please a dog, for Woolcott could be discreet. This and other tales were recounted as only actors can when talking of themselves. I left them with no backward glance (and no memory of a single face or name) and moved to Gramercy Park to my own studio apartment. All of this and the writing of the show, and what living I managed in the cracks between, is remembered in the flickering light of a nearly-destroyed print of a movie. As I recall now those weeks and months, they too are vaguely defined so that I can’t reconstruct how much time was actually spent in this pursuit—of a route or doorway into the actual hot country below the border for it was a trip I had to make before I could turn back around and I believe that I knew this, and knew I would recover. But that conviction belongs to now; then I was simply lost. People asked what I was ‘on.’ A rumor went around that I had become a drug addict. The first thing the person I have lived with for 30 years heard about me was that I was an addict; the second was that I was a sadist. I believe that I turned cruel, but there are no survivors for me to question. I have what may be a faux memoire of blood on the marble stairs at Gramercy Park.

I began to sob dry sobs that would come over me like hiccups without warning. Unfortunately they were not silent and dry unsilent sobs in The Oak Room, on a Fifth Avenue bus, at a rehearsal, during fellatio, can profoundly disturb the one you’re with. A child’s whistle used on the show—the episode was built around a brat-turned-angel—was the catalyst, road-sign, propellant—all of which will do to describe what occurred. The whistle lodged in my brain and went home with me tootling gaily, then in the night less so, then sadly, then horridly. Sometime or other I made a transition and when I came to, I was in Louisville staying in the carriage house of an acquaintance. One day we went to the country—it was autumn—and across a field I saw fox grapes weighing down a tree and started across the field to pick them, an old passion, and was plunged back to childhood and a similar day when I had stood on a split rail fence picking and eating grapes and looked at the swampy field I had just crossed and saw hundreds of black undulant objects and believed they were the limbs of murdered Negroes reaching for justice, before I saw that they were black snakes. In that field near Louisville I relived before the horrified eyes of my acquaintance that day and what had informed it: the night of the bloodhounds, of the ax and the thick blood and clumps of hair in the cabin. She had been combing her hair. A white woman. There was blood in the comb for like a beheaded chicken running around she had gone on combing her hair for a minute afterwards, that is what they said. She had cut out of her belly the Negro’s baby and he had cut off her head and that night he was lynched. Inhabiting both fields at once, and the London (no doubt) of Jack The Ripper and my child, I screamed myself voiceless. There’s nothing, they tell me, more cathartic than a good scream. I began to recover though I was for a time afflicted by something like aphasia, except my version was more logical. Reaching for plateau I would come up with tableau; reaching for place I would settle for play. At the airport I asked for a one way ticket to Grievance, Ohio. This was Cleveland, where I remembered it snowed all the time. Before I left, my friend trusted me with his car for a couple of days and I drove to my deserted wilderness home. To the rutted clay roads alongside sere cornfields, to the vine-hung swamps and springs rising from rock and hill and rushing through cellars of houses in our water-blessed world; to the stands of hickory nut, called scaly bark in my youth, and black walnut trees, and sassafras and mayapples whose roots I dug and sold by the pound; and to memories of great tracts of goldenrod bordered by the scarlet of sumac and the waves of perfume of honey locusts; and to the ghost of the felled honey tree into whose golden cavern I crawled tearing out and passing along great chunks of molten sage and locust and clover; when I emerged, molten myself, I gathered to me a black, hooded cloak of bees, the cloak, someone said, shivering as though in a high wind; but of how I came to be divested of my deadly garment I have no recollection. Like a wary animal I circled a vast house whose hundreds of massive shutters were rudely nailed tight, crisscrossed with broken pieces of wood flaking green and blue paint and two-by-fours and split rails so that the house looked like the ghastly sutured remains of an operation by some butcher surgeon. As always was, as always will be, the air there was pervaded by the ineffable smell that gave the house its name, Sweet Briar. The odor was scarcely diminished even by the deep freeze of winter for it imbued the wood of the house and the brick and stone of it, its tall, squat, ornamental and plain chimneys, its woodlands, its outbuildings, waterways, the walls of its gardens, its walkways, hedges, the fenceposts of its pastures. There is a stretch in Central Park which in late spring—but no, I am here, not there now; here where my heart is like some deep-bedded fieldstone too heavy, too rooted to be moved, and it is in the surrounding fields that I sleep in my down-filled bag, like Wayland’s feather boat, where I conjure the rustle in corn shocks no longer guardians, cairn-like, of the suspended house; and hear in the stealth of autumn winds low in the grass my own footsteps on Halloween night, and in the cries of birds I hear again our soft warnings to each other as we go about the business of our mischief. Each night I move my bed and blessed by the white moon—harvest? hunter’s?—I survey the stony cliffs of the houses’ facades and precisely like a cartographer working from memory I map the stilled world within the walls, tracing with carefully detached memory the long tributaries of corridors, the estuaries of halls and landings, coves of rooms, noting always the emotional equator, shying from it, noting only its parallels and degrees of latitude. One would be safest in that closetless tower as high as that distant bluff; moving in the houses’ geography south, it is possible to feel the laxation of security. It seems that to pass from one part of the house into another via the enclosed breezeway connecting the ancient dwelling of logs encased in cosmetic rose brick with the later, more pretentious additions of pale stone, is like the passage through the Miraflores. To my ears the immensity within was clamorous, resounding at times like a cistern to whispers and cries metaphysically retained, and the sounds of games, serious, light, disgusting; innocent and criminal; a plumbline dropped through the emotional depths of the house would come to rest on neither bottom nor ledge. I saw on my last night of contemplation that it was unfathomable. I climbed at dawn to the top of the distant bluff where within a circle of alders my kin lay, their places staked out by mossy stones, some dating back to before the Revolutionary War. From that vantage point the slave-built walls marking the county’s boundary could be seen, and beyond it halfway across the next county, to my Aunt’s farm lying among its buildings like some abandoned watering place in the maze of ponds, lakes, streams, glinting one felt unblithely. The cabins all about the countryside, deserted since World War II, basked and trembled in the late autumn sun and wind like half-animate objects of dull silver and tortoise shell. Finally I went to the spired chapel on what we children had called The Green Grass, on whose steps I once sat in cold sweat trying to fathom eternity, burning forever: on and on (I said then) and on, while discomprehension grew. The words through repetition became entirely meaningless like their context and I have settled more or less for that; call it my religion.

Soon one of the two etesian winds would rise (the other, nattering like a succubus at the base of the skull, blew in March), and rise steadily toward its solstitial roar, no Halcyon days for my wilderness home, bringing with it from mountain tops the bridles and blinders, the whips and reins of sleet to harness and command the snow horses, their great manes tossing and streaming upon the winds as they breached mountain passes. Even now the neglected orchards heralded their progression by hurling like petrified roses upon its path the last and sweetest of their apples upon which I, empty for two days, gorged, a carpophagous ghost haunting my own life. I wished to be the cambium between the hard shell of the world and the enduring fiber of that wilderness so that both might because of me regenerate: the fiber jucier, the shell more flexible and useful.

I dispute whoever first said you can’t go home again. You can’t not go home again unless you have a prefrontal lobotomy. It’s just that once there you may as I have set formal language between you and it, ‘it’ being the re-experiencing which is often sentimental. In the mapping of the house, for example, I avoided mention of the kitchen for one thing would have made and now makes the remembrance sentimental: mention of the four cakes which were always mellowing there, replaced as soon as eaten. Those cakes were wonderful: a jam cake, a chocolate cake, a coconut cake, and an angel food variously iced, this one “for the ladies.” And behind the kitchen the smokehouse. Bacon. Ham. Aged sausage in casings a meter long. And further back hen houses, turkey pens, the duck pond, and behind them, fed by droppings, gardens, fields, patches and beds, cornucopias of richness; and root cellars, and dairies, and brooks running with trout and so on back to the big river and its catfish and up the slopes beyond to nut and persimmon and pawpaw trees and the endless largesse of the wilderness, its wild berries and rosehips, foxgrapes, medicinal roots, herbs from which oils were drawn and powders pounded; and from the foothill of the mountain one looked down upon the cultivation, the orchards in rows, the stables in settlements, the barns in communities; the soap house with its cauldrons hanging from tripods in the yard, the long low wash house like part of a musical instrument from which the clothesline radiated like strings for the wind to play upon; the isolated privies; the flower gardens; the summer kitchen with its high covered walkway to the dining room, its rafters hung with glass wind chimes. In that stone-floored neat building over there are churns for making butter undreamed of in Manhattan—the Churn House, separate from the dairy which was separated from the Creamery where butterfat was tested in tubes and on scales, a 1920s refinement that afforded a paying job to some family member, always female. And set apart, downwind, the pig pens abounding in mud, edged by the slopping troughs. Working again toward the house one encounters geese, guineas, and raucous peafowl, and the sheepfold with its long-unused gallery-like house in which wool was once carded, and somewhere in that collection of utilities is the flax-house, and somewhere over there the grape press, the sorghum press … and so we are back to food again: the baby recalls the plate on which sorghum and butter are swirled together (later in boyhood he finds the same configuration and colors in a prized taw, amber and gold) and the warm soft biscuit sopped in the creamy lake and pressed to its mouth by a darkbrown hand, this weaning food accompanied by crooning sounds, a wordless song.

One night in Cleveland my relative asked me if I was not curious about my old television show. It was the first I had thought of it and the question returned me with a jolt to the world I had left. It was also well-timed for it was the night of the show.

On the screen unfolded the legend The Album of Unfamiliar Music and the photograph of me doctored to look like a portrait adorned the cover of a large book. Its pages began to turn. The show was a recap of my career, a ‘and then he wrote’ show with the highlights from each musical satire and the best song of that particular evening. Many of the original performers had been recruited including two Metropolitan Opera stars who had played and now re-played The Beast and his sexy blonde mother in our send-up of Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bete.

And here was Charlotte Rae re-recreating her mermaid in another spoof, singing “Like A Fish Out of Water,” and here was the brat-turned-angel sporting on Olympus singing “Ye Gods and Little Fishes”; and Tyree Glenn, the great jazzman, as a crazed surgeon on Mars rubbing his hands, antenna bobbling, saying to his exotic scrub nurse, “Gimme sumpin SHARP,” and the love-song from that show, “Galaxy of Love”; and Sandra Lee, later Tiger Lily in “Peter Pan” on Broadway, stomping out the hoedown I had written for her Mammy Yocum role; and goodlooking red-haired Bernice Parks of the nightclubs very effectively moaning my beguine “So Little Time.” At the end of the hour and a half the cast lined up for the camera and all got down on one knee and said in unison, “Wherever you are, Cole, please come home.”

My relative understood that I must leave. She and her family helped me very much. I was able to play unmorbidly with the children and when awkward moments came they had all been discreet about it. Or so I thought. But recently I talked to one of that family about the days I had spent with them and she, now a woman nearing 40, told me none of them had suspected anything. Still, I cling to my analysis; they were all discreet about it, and still are.

I was taken to David Merrick by his first wife, Leonore. A fat publicist of the day, Alfred Katz (among his clients, the Duchess of Windsor) said of the transaction: “David was going to divorce Leonore but she found Cole for him.”

As none of this is probably recorded anywhere except on this paper, you are asked to take my word for it that the properties Mr. Merrick intended for me were “The Matchmaker” (“Hello, Dolly”), “Destry Rides Again” (“Destry”), and Gypsy Rose Lee’s autobiography which became “Gypsy.” Jerry Herman got the first, Harold Rome the second, and Stein and Sondheim the third. But our first project, for which Merrick had taken as co-producer Joe Mielziner, the set designer, was to be “Ah, Wilderness” by Eugene O’Neill. I have to say that I do not admire O’Neill except for the film and TV versions of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” which is to say, I admired the performances of Katharine Hepburn in the film and Laurence Olivier in the TV version. At no time have I felt affection for the coy “Ah, Wilderness,” which in addition to the usual terrible O’Neill ear features the worst last line in theatrical history: Yes, Nat. The echo as the curtain descends leaves one with the image of a gnat, perfect for the irritating and squashable effect of the play.

But here was a job and the Big Broadway Chance. Even gnats make singing noises. Several bookwriters were interested but the one that Merrick wanted, Sam Behrman, was not. He was then working on his own play of adolescent tensions, seduction, family conflict, “The Cold Wind and The Warm,” but I don’t think the O’Neill play spoke to either side of Behrman’s nature, one urbane drawing-room WASP, the other shtetl-roots Jewish. Behrman and his wife liked my music, and he praised the lyrics, but before our meeting was over he had alienated me by using one time too many the word pansy. “Daphnis et Chloe” was pansy music. So and So was a pansy designer. Thus and So had played a pansy Hamlet. Mr. Behrman looked like a plumber, which in fact a friend of mine mistook him for in a Deer Isle bathroom, and this combined with a mind sometimes revealed to be delicate brought irresistibly the image of the cartoon of a bruiser sniffing a violet. He was amusing on the subject of Max Beerbohm, provided you found the subject initially amusing—I never had—and seemed to extend a kind of shrewd-eyed sympathy in my direction. But we did not meet again for years. When we did he begged a favor which I refused. The favor was to stay on for the weekend in our mutual agent’s house on Deer Isle, Maine, because he was bored to death with Harold and May Friedman, though he presented the boredom as that of his young secretary. My friend and I were on the way to the Gaspe Peninsula and had only stopped for lunch and were reluctant to give the weekend to trying to understand what Harold was saying (he whispered). Behrman even ran after our car but—was this retaliation?—I said no.

Other bookwriters were eager to join the project but these were usually lyricists, and Merrick wanted my lyrics. For the phantom book I wrote ten songs which were played frequently at Merrick’s hotel apartment, and sometimes at parties to which he would go if there was a hint of an angel in attendance.

At one such party in a chic East 70s apartment I was giving the usual expository lead-in to the song as though there were in fact a musical book and was told by the aforementioned Alfred Katz, “Shut up, Jew boy, and play.” This was rather more subtle than it sounds for what lay beneath it, since he liked the songs and intended to be the show’s publicist, was regret at my not being Jewish. Once when things were going well he said, “If you were Jewish we could all lie back and rub our stomachs and kvell. But how can a goy kvell?”

Before my ‘career’ in the theater was over I had been informed by a director that the New York theater had no need at all for non-Jews. I pass this along to Gentile and other—to Muslim and Buddhist and to atheist and Hindu, for he was a Very Big Director. He’s dead now, but directing, one hopes, all-Jewish productions in an all-Jewish heaven. My own theatrical heaven would have resembled no doubt the Indianapolis project under Tyrone Guthrie—forever Off Broadway.

 

Enter John LaTouche, bookwriter, famous lyricist, and well-known goniff of other people’s ideas. Or so I was told. “If you have an idea written under your balls, he’ll find it.” Ivan Obolensky told me that there was this awful little man … but talented. LaTouche was a favorite of Obolensky’s mother’s. He was a favorite of many an aging and aged woman, few of them as charming as Alice Astor. There was Gilda Dahlberg, a gloomy woman encrusted like a Faberge egg with jewels. There was Rozika Dolly of the once-feted Dolly Sisters, a George Grosz cartoon of a femme fatale, resembling more than a little, with her intricate exposed sinews and ligaments, some kind of instrument, but the sound that emerged from this instrument of leather and diamonds was the screech of a peacock. She would shout out such things as … “… my fifth husband for five minutes” and one wondered if she had had another fifth husband for, say, half an hour. But we were introducing John La Touche.

Some small creatures pull their smallness in around them, condensing themselves until it can be seen that they are presenting compactness as a means of disarming those around them. My terrier, when she wants to be picked up, offers her smallness as the best argument for the defense. A doorman whom I see each early morning just winding up his nightshift suggests that this small density on the other side of the glass door is the best reason his house should not be invaded; withdrawn into his greatcoat he shows a stubborn hopefulness in the kindness of strangers

John LaTouche, who could have qualified as a dwarf, was not this kind of small creature. His vast head belonged on a body six feet higher than his own, so that only seated in a passing automobile did he achieve his majesty—from the neck up, and swiftly transient. His ego could have outfitted a Sicilian village composed of Mafia chieftains. He was talented but perhaps not commensurate with his ideas of his worth. He had a bad temper and his determination to prevail matched that of the cockroach. He broke all the rules to cheat at games: “You mean you never heard of the twelfth century Persian word for shroff?” This at a game of Scrabble with old ladies—Helvetia Perkins whom Jane Bowles immortalized (I do believe) and Louise Andrews Kent, Duchess of Kent’s Corners. He pushed croquet balls with his feet and behaved outrageously at bridge. He was the perfect despot and at times incomparably good company, thus his allure.

He was signed on as book and lyric writer and we left with an entourage for his dreary house on the top of a mudhill in Vermont. Once there it became apparent that he had no intention of working on “Ah, Wilderness” at all, which he referred to as a potboiler. By this he meant that the money Merrick gave him not to work kept the pot boiling while he worked on “The Ballad of Baby Doe” with Douglas Moore and “The Vamp” for Carol Channing. The parlors of Vermont were subjected to excerpts from the latter show. When inquiries were innocently made about songs from “Ah, Wilderness” he would play them my song, “Autumn,” mangling the tune but letter perfect on the lyric, for which he took the praise … the lyric I had written for Lee Wiley and re-worked for Aunt Lily in “Ah, Wilderness,” that was not to be heard on a stage until Carolyn May, as Lennie Colman, sang it in “The Tattooed Countess.”

As his parting advice Merrick had told me to do anything, by which he implied anything, to keep the temperamental LaTouche content. The nuances were not so subtle but LaTouche was happily well-fixed in that department, vide the entourage composed interchangably, one noticed, of old and new lovers, male and female. Kenward Elmslie was there; Donald Fuller was there; a blond Mr. Martin was there; Ruth Landshoff Yorck (it was said that Brecht had written “The Jewish Wife” about her) was there, as was a small vivacious Indian woman whom LaTouche said was a Maharani but who herself said that that was only her name: Maya Rani. LaTouche also introduced Ruth Yorck as Countess, for she had been married to a Count Yorck … Why not Grafin, in literate Vermont? But I can’t fault him there, in this title-ridden book. Perhaps that most American thing, that shamefaced longing for a nobility tagged like trees wearing their Latin names, was my best bond with LaTouche and should have been explored. To carry out Merrick’s instructions I prepared and planted a garden, cooked, house cleaned, picked up behind the imperial-mannered guests. I had only the living room to sleep in and as LaTouche stayed up until dawn I was often sleepless. He would go up to bed at daybreak just as the others, healthy big boys and girls, were coming down expecting breakfast. I was two years older than the youngest of that crew, many years younger than the rest, but took on the role of parent, and scolded, and cleaned up after them, and sulked, and cooked good meals in the nice kitchen, thinking not so often any more about the two-burner-cum- tin-oven in the room I had shared with Kitty. When libido overcame I crawled into bed with someone and usually found a welcome. My lover was flying up to be met at Burlington each weekend. It was not an altogether bad time, but confusing: what to tell Merrick? Would it be obeying instructions not to report LaTouche’s duplicity (anything to keep him happy)—or would I be called by Merrick a traitor? Guess.

Literary and theatrical figures came and went, as dinner guests, as house guests, or stayed nearby as summer or permanent residents. Norris Houghton of The Phoenix Theater was just down the hill in his pretty house which the sunlight could never touch; Mary McCarthy ‘moved like a cobra’—LaTouche’s imagery; I never saw her—up the hill and past the Co-op store to and from her summer house; Harvard professors abounded. One’s frumpiest neighbor trailing babies like a Duckess possessed some arcane degree; conversation at square dances and yard sales could be incomprehensibly learned. We attended candlelit concerts in the Kent’s Corners Tavern, sported in freezing blue water at a place called The Sliding Pools, a natural marvel hidden in deep woodland, fished, picnicked, made feasts in different houses, in the incomparable summer weather of Northern Vermont. There were scandals, there were always fights at LaTouche’s. He was capable of the most blatant insults paid to company in company. He insulted his friends, his guests, me. My lover is a psychoanalyst and LaTouche reserved his hatred for that profession (he had sent through the mail to his own analyst a box of shit) to those times when my friend, whom I shall call Allen, was there. My lover is also Jewish and LaTouche insulted Jews continuously. It was not until long after his death, when a young man came to interview me about him, that I discovered his mother was Jewish.

Effie Mayer La Touche: I was told that Gore Vidal accused La Touche of hiring an old vaudeville actress to pose as his mother. She was either that, or one of the most innocent people alive. She was small, plump, disingenuous, full of appalling unfunny Southern stories, and she was delightful. One of her poses, which may of course not have been a pose, was to ignore all signs pointing to her son’s possible sexual ‘abnormality,’ as it was then called. Or that of her friends. Carson McCullers would dig, dig away, trying to make Effie understand the relationship between her friends Helvetia Perkins and Jane Bowles (their former relationship ; Helvetia at this time lived mysteriously in a handsome farmhouse in Vermont, the house divided like a brain into the conscious (downstairs) and unconscious (upstairs)) … “Janie looked across the street in Mexico and saw Helvetia and said, ’That’s for me!’” Effie would say, “How nice! People jest always know who’s goin to be their friend, right off!” One snowy night in Manhattan Carol Channing, hugely pregnant, and Axel Carson had to stay overnight and were put in the same room—Miss Channing and Mr. Carson. At breakfast Carol remarked that during the night her husband had said – and Effie broke in, beatifically relieved, “You’re married! How nice!”

She and her son would fight fearsomely; he would back her into a corner threatening mayhem, I would find them and break it up, he would leave for New York—more frequently as summer passed and the musical approached rehearsal —and write to Effie what she described as ‘love lettahs—jest exactly like a lettah from a lovah.’

My lover and I and Effie spent two perfect weeks alone in the cramped little house just prior to the onset of autumn. The warm days turned cold at night so that one slept under blankets. Effie made for us delectable Southern food and the three of us around the table unselfconsciously made of ourselves and our contentment a third entity, which was a happy family. This was something no one of the three of us had ever really known. She called us her sons. She had two of her own but they hated each other and one love/hated her which must have been a strain on little Effie Mayer LaTouche, who should have been a happy farmer’s wife. She had to close her eyes to too much, and of course to the fact that with enough room now, my lover and I still continued to sleep together down past the pond in the screened-in one-bed house. But just now the thought presents itself that if we were her sons then there was nothing abnormal at all about our bunking together at the edge of the dark wood.

This pond house was one that LaTouche said he had had built as a shrine, carefully aligned to sunrise-sunset, but which my lover and I had contaminated by sleeping in it rather than, the alternative, lying on the floor in the abysmally overcrowded bungalow. That day and night were a nadir, the end of the romance Effie and Allen and I had shared with nature. LaTouche arrived from New York with several people, one of them Ruth Landshoff Yorck who exclaimed, “Mrs. LaTouche has my room.” Summer had revived for one day and the heat had brought on the flies and beckoned the mosquitoes, which did not help to calm those accustomed to self-indulgent displays of arrogance and temper. Effie wept but had no effective champion, and finally was taken in by Helvetia Perkins (a resigned, scarcely enthusiastic Good Samaritan). I refused to leave so late in the day—Vermont’s motels back then were few and booked—and as someone was to have my old couch in the living room I took bedclothes and marched over the dam and made up a bed in the shrine. Ignoring LaTouche’s threatful protests seemed imperative. At one point he stood on the narrow dam and tried to push me into the black water. His remarkable eyes were devoid of sense, or of sensibility in the archaic meaning of receptiveness to our plight. I could have gone begging to neighbors and found a bed for Allen and me but why should I? The carload of spoiled and no doubt bone-weary sycophants had appeared without notice with LaTouche, who had sent word, for there was no telephone, that he would be arriving sometime that week. Summer was ending, the only period of real creature comfort of the entire season plus half-a-Spring for me; I had taken insults, had spent every penny of my advance money on the household, had labored, had lied to Merrick if only by omission, had slept like a slavey only when allowed. It was the end for LaTouche and me and I told him so.

I have a photograph taken by Allen at my insistence (like an act of rape) the next morning. La Touche’s eyes are still insane-appearing. He tried to detain Allen and me in spite of his rage, and I knew why: my departure would bring to an end the Merrick largesse. I wanted the photograph as a kind of record, for I knew I would never go back into that sterile relationship and probably that my Big Chance would be forfeit because of the decision. All I had was the evidence: my 20 melodies for “Ah, Wilderness” and his two lyrics (the opening song and “Kissing Cousins,” both charming); there was also his completed opera libretto and completed musical comedy. And Merrick had his own records, if he cared to consult them: the $50 a week to me and the thousands to the great John La Touche.

Allen and I went to Maine and then home. There, all was as I had expected it to be. La Touche had seen Merrick and played him a series of songs composed apparently on the instant, songs said to be from our summer’s long labors. Merrick had not been fooled and was horrified at what had become of my “Autumn” and another song he had particularly liked. Naturally he accused me bitterly of having been a traitor, of not reporting to him what had been going on. He had even heard from La Touche of my preference for gardening and cooking to writing music. I was let go, La Touche died before he could be fired, and Bob Merrill and another book writer were signed on for “Ah, Wilderness” which became “Take Me Along” and was a hit. I had been at work on casting and financing “The Tattooed Countess” when I read in The New York Times, while I was visiting in Louisville, that Merrick had signed my leading lady, Eileen Herlie, for his musical. The day before I left for Louisville, Eileen had called to praise exuberantly the new number I had written for her Countess, an habanera called “Continental Attitudes.” She had not yet however, been signed by my producers and expressed impatience during the same call. In my imagination I see her hanging up from the call with me and being called by Sam Zolotow about the rumor that Merrick wanted to sign her, and deciding in that instant, a mental toss of the coin, in favor of Aunt Lily over Ella Nattatorini … I went to her opening night in New Haven, I kissed her in the dressing room, I congratulated Merrick; when “Take Me Along” opened in New York and was a hit, I gave a party for Eileen, a very successful, celebrity-ridden party. It was the last time I saw her. As for Merrick: in the heyday of our courtship, through no fault of his (you’ll be glad to learn) a baby tooth of mind which had masqueraded for years, like me, as an adult, fell out; to fill the gap temporarily (a full-grown tooth lay horizontally in the gum and was brought down at the cost of a Broadway show through orthodonture years later) Merrick provided me with the money for a small detachable tooth. Blaming me for the fiasco of LaTouche and “Ah, Wilderness,” he told people, “I gave him a tooth and he bit me with it.” Not then, David. Not then.

“The Vamp” failed but long before it did the rumors from Detroit of trouble and conflicts had set it up as that year’s big flop (preceding “Butrio Square” which some consider the worst musical of all time.) Channing had LaTouche barred from her dressing room and I think the director had him barred from the theater.

“The Ballad of Baby Doe” was a success, a most beautiful and affecting production. The music has a nostalgic radiance and a technical perfection, for this was Douglas Moore’s “Falstaff.” I find LaTouche ‘s lyrics for the songs, the arias, as simple and appropriate as can be though the sung dialog is lazy, a compendium of cliches, a mistake I copied in my own “Tattooed Countess.” Not consciously. I would never emulate LaTouche. For my approaching old age I sometimes pray for grace, for I am willful and bad-tempered, and believe ’irascible’ makes a dreadful pairing with ‘old.’ I also labor, sometimes very hard, to make accurate statements, to confine wishful thinking and fantasy to my novels and stories. Consider the words ‘aging liar.’ They are not attractive, no more so than ‘irascible old’ man.

John LaTouche was not old when he died, but older than he, perhaps, thought. He maintained—not, of course, after death, at least I don’t imagine so—that he was in his thirties. His bereaved mother, innocent as always, said that he was in his forties. I remember his dislike of his grey hairs and am able to feel some sympathy for his vanity. But not quite enough. Not a year after the Vermont summer LaTouche and the blond Mr. Martin were alone in the little house on the hill. LaTouche suffered what I have heard was thought to be indigestion and he and Mr. Martin got out the medical book to look up his symptoms and a treatment for them. The pain going down the left arm, the erratic heartbeat, the other reported discomforts and irregularities comprised the syndrome of heart attack. But apparently Mr. Martin went into another room to sleep and LaTouche—a telephone call away from salvation, perhaps, the telephone three miles down the road at the Coop store—died.

I was traveling in Europe with friends when a letter arrived for one of them telling of a seance in a house above the Hudson in which Mr. Martin’s innocence (as it were) was established, for the medium announced “No foul play.” I wanted to send a cable telling of a seance on the Palatine in which it was established through contact with Caesar that there was ‘no foul play’ connected with his death, either. But was dissuaded. I suppose what I meant and mean was, wherever LaTouche is, there is bound to be a certain amount of foul play. Perhaps this recountal comprises a bit of it. The facts are accurate, but you mean you don’t know the 20th century-equivalent proper noun for Moloch?

David Merrick, whose real name was Margolies, and I parted after the “Ah, Wilderness” fiasco more or less in the following manner. He had often referred to me as The Golden Boy, unambiguous about what he meant: that I would make us both a fortune. I was the only melodist (his word at the time) among the younger crop who could hold his own with the Giants of Broadway Past. Therefore when the melodist sat before him, having been methodically broken into fifths, the great showman could not resist a final blow to the clavichord. He said to me.

“Where will you go now, Golden Boy?” cold sarcasm his genius.

“Oh, I guess I’ll move to Margolies, Long Island.”

I won’t explain the joke. (There’s a Merrick, LI) He did not think I was funny.

Moira Dryer 002

Moira Dryer, An American Landscape, 1985, casein on wood, 23 × 15½ inches. Photo by Pelka/Noble.

The Almanac Branch by Bradford Morrow
Related
At Home With Drosselmeier by Coleman Dowell
236416106 03062015 Coleman Dowell 01 Bomb 010
Marie Laveau Is Calling Me by Tina L'Hotsky
Kirsten Bates 001

In the early Summer of 1947 I decided to take a long bus trip down South from New York to New Orleans passing through scores of small Southern Towns and Confederate wayfares. 

My Ecstatic Body: T Fleischmann Interviewed by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore
T Fleischmann Cover

The writer on seeking queer lineage, public sex as collective defiance, and autobiography as accumulation.

Originally published in

BOMB 13, Fall 1985

David Salle by Georgia Marsh, John Huston, Richard Chaves & Vincent Caristi, art by Carroll Dunham, Moira Dryer, and more.

Read the issue
013 Fall 1985