I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
This started out to be an essay on songwriting. How the best lines of a song either don’t mean anything or were written by somebody else. Like Mastrelli’s line about the stars are really in your eyes. Gary’s Isn’t this my cloud/ For a thousand dollars you can be perfect. Or Vito’s, Love is the Revolution unless you’re dead, which is both. Once, in the process of composing, V & I even quarreled as to which of us wrote the line do you really give a shit and how Songwriting runs in the family from my great grandfather, who was court poet to the Czar of Russia to my mother’s father who was a poet/insurance salesman, to her brother, my uncle Leo, who wrote “Thanks for the Memory.” I definitely inherited Leo’s fondness for clever titles, funny rhymes, corny puns, off-color double meanings. I couldn’t tell him about my own attempts to write song lyrics, “words for songs” as he called them, because families have to keep certain things secret from each other and themselves, have secret taboo subjects, which my songs and writing is all about, sex drugs, rock ’n’ roll, money, pop, death, deviance, dalliance, even tho Uncle Leo had three spouses, my cousin Mark’s five, my mother, Ruthie, my father, me, two divorces.
My mother has five brothers and sisters. I am an only child but I have a lot of first cousins, 17 until three years ago. Two of my mother’s sisters, my aunt Rodie and aunt Ruthie, and my mothers brother Uncle Leo, live in California, Ruthie and Rodie in Burbank, Leo in Westwood. Ruthie and her husband Gus are typical west coast music show biz types. She was a “girl singer” with bands, most notable Phil Harris’. Uncle Gus was first clarinetist in the MGM studio orchestra. Now there isn’t one and Gus has a little combo and they play around, like Sunday brunch at Victoria Station in Universal City. On Sunday the whole family went. Ruthie and her son my cousin Gary are like lovers but when she got up to sing with Gus’s band Gary whispered, At least your mother doesn’t do that.
On Thursday, Berdie, the oldest sister, is flying into LA from Kansas City so my Uncle Gus drives me and my mother, who are visiting Aunt Rodie and Ruthie, the youngest to the airport to pick up Berdie and then drive into Westwood to have lunch with Uncle Leo and Cherie, Leo’s new wife. Not that new. Almost two years now since their August wedding which was shortly after Leo’s 82nd birthday. Leo, author of such Hollywood hits as “Thanks for the Memory,” “Every Little Breeze Seems to Whisper Louise,” “Beyond the Blue Horizon,” and such show tunes as “Hallelujah,” and “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” is the oldest, more like a father, thought pictures too tacky for his baby sister Ruthie, so Dorothy Lamour got the part and too low brow for his brother Nate, who was living in Hollywood at the time so he could study with Schoenberg who was teaching at UCLA. Nate, the only one of the six brothers and sisters who is absent today, after Berdie’s plane gets in, has lived with the burden of being a misunderstood genius who couldn’t get his symphonies played but keeps on composing to this day in his hotel room in New York which Leo thinks he does him the favor of paying for. No one believes in genius much any more, but Leo thought Nate was too special to take a job with the studio. In Hollywood, Leo was known as the President of the Sweet Guys Club. Our cat Diamonds is named that because he was found on the night I returned from seeing Lorelei, a recent update of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Leo’s lyrics from the original show plus a few new ones by Comden and Green. Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend survived. It had funny lines and funny rhymes like bent knees or stiff knees/ you’ll stand straight at Tiffany’s. Marilyn Monroe immortalized “Diamonds” as the show people call it but it was a play before it was a movie, one of the few Broadway shows Leo did. Broadway was New York, and he didn’t want to bring his family from the coast to live in the city. So most of the 2,400 songs he wrote were for movies or “pictures” as he used to call them.
I remember when the movie of Gentlemen came out, starring Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe no one in our family would go because Carol Channing, who had played Lorelei Lee, the blond from Little Rock in the show, and who was Leo’s darling, was passed over in typical Hollywood fashion for the movie in favor of Marilyn who made “Diamonds” a classic. But somewhere I read that Marilyn was always miserable about that movie because Jane Russell not she, got star treatment. The movie was thrown off by making the brunette so glamorous. The idea is that the brunette is the plain sensible one, that gentlemen prefer blondes but they marry brunettes and that is a complete switch from the idea in 19th-century romantic literature, including Melville, that it is the blond, bland, home hugging Anglo he marries, returns to the dark raving and ravenous beauty he has a forest fling with, who takes him on a wild ride. She is Eastern, or Semitic, or foreign or her name is Miriam. Sometimes if the hero can’t tear himself away from her she has to die so he can get back to the blond, the kind of girl you can bring home to mother. But by the ’20s, Hollywood has given all the flash and lure. Peroxide. Fran, Marsh’s mother was a blond. Cherie is a blond still. So is Ruthie. Rodie’s hair is as red as it was when she was born. Everybody in California dyes their hair. Except Leo and he goes to his hairdresser weekly and Cherie has the diamonds now. Fran’s diamonds. Cherie made a career of Leo. When Leo was married to Fran, my cousin Marsh, my ex-cousin Marsh’s mother, Cherie was Leo’s accountant. Even when he wasn’t writing he made a lot from ASCAP royalties. Cherie worked for Marilyn Monroe before Leo, when Marilyn was living on Sutton Place. Even after Fran did the perfect number of pills to kill herself in Bloomingdale’s hospital in Westchester when Leo was in New York working on a new show, Leo and Cherie could not marry. It was because of my cousin Marsh. Cherie felt Leo was too old to have to deal with a son who ODed or went to jail or was sent out of the country every other year of his last 15 years. The real reason she would not marry Leo was because Leo insisted on leaving the door to his Westwood apartment open every night, in case Marsh was in trouble, sick, without keys or money and Cherie refused to sleep with the door wide open which Leo kept on doing even after Marsh was supposedly clean and even engaged to marry a nice girl, one with no history. He couldn’t have been that clean for that long, though. He was not available for socializing at all the summer before, the first time we went to California. No not the first. The first time we went to California, Marsh was nine (I almost wrote “alive”). He and Leo and Fran, the beautiful Southern belle, were still living in style at the Maple Drive address in Beverly Hills, right across the street from Louella Parsons, the gossip columnist. She kept her blinds half down which I remember seemed backwards to me and I also remember all sitting around Leo’s pool, as usual. Leo was screaming at Marsh, as usual. Aunt Fran had a towel wrapped around her Kentucky thoroughbred hair recently bleached Hollywood blond, beautiful legs crossed. She always looked perfect, dressed up, even in her bathing suit. Maybe it was the diamonds. Always with a drink in her hand but always seeming perfectly sober. Maybe it was the pills. Marsh was dipping rags—rags! Probably Leo’s best Irish linen handkerchiefs—in kerosene, then attaching the rags to the tips of the new arrows Leo gave him for his birthday and shooting them with the new bow, at the thatched roof of the bath house Leo had just built, one by one, until he finally burnt it to the ground.
So it was the second time I went to California that I didn’t see Marsh for lunch the day I was supposed to. It was 20 years after the first time. My father repudiated, as Faulkner would say, Hollywood and popular culture in general so there was no reason to go there while he was alive and then after he died there was because my mother’s family was there, but the day we all drove into Westwood to have lunch with Leo and Marsh, Marsh was not there. Leo said he was sick which either meant he was in the hospital because he ODed, in jail for possession or sales or both, was high or maybe really was sick. Leo and Cherie were not married yet. First we sat around her apartment which is all light blue, even the water in the toilet bowl. Then Leo wanted to take us down to his “pad” as he called it on the floor below. It had a big grand piano in it and on the piano was the Oscar he won for “Thanks for the Memory.” It was his third nomination that was the lucky one but I just recently found out he had 12 songs up for Oscars between 1929 and 1959 when he quit writing songs for pictures as he still calls them, in the waning days of the Hollywood musical or maybe it was because Fran died or was that the year Marsh was conveniently exported to Vienna for a year with his psychiatrist to let things cool out back home. So we sat around and talked about songwriting. Uncle Leo’s a wonderful story teller (I always did think there was a tie-up between song writing and writing prose, that lyrics are kind of the opposite of poetry). He told the story of the censors at Paramount making him change the line in “Thanks for the Memory” They went to Niagara/ but they didn’t see the falls to They went to Niagara/ but they hardly saw the falls. Hollywood is good at the fine lines of compromise. Also how when the hit show Hit the Deck went to London, Leo decided to go over and check it out only to see headlines about how the show was blasphemous and the Exchequer was threatening to close it after opening night. The offending word was in the song “Hallelujah,” in the part about Gabriel tootin’ on his horn. So Lee changed it to blowin’ and the show ran. When I crossed the room and picked up the Oscar statuette I admit I got goosebumps. It was heavier than I expected. For the first time I thought about inheriting bent, the gene for the lyrical impulse that runs in my mother’s family which I never can share with my family. When I came back from LA that time Jessie, my Uncle Nate’s girlfriend of 40 years, couldn’t believe I hadn’t told Uncle Leo about my songwriting and my record but I still think I did the right thing in not sending him a copy of “Love Makes You Vicious.” It’s hard enough with my mother. She telephones and asks me what I’m doing.
—Working on a song, I say.
—What’s it called, she persists.
—It’s called “Why Are All the People I Love Crazy.”
—She says, Ann, I’m hurt.
—It’s not about you.
—Well is Vito crazy?
—It’s just a song, mother.
But she knows better. My father would have died if he’d heard my pop music. He died anyway. I like the way he did. Beyond repair and therapy in the only part of his body he had any true respect for, the left side of his brain, or what stemmed from it. It was his theory years ago that people became ill in the part of them they favored the most, not because of some evil or fate but because that part wore out first from over-use so it was no surprise to him when his first wife who was a pianist developed Parkinson’s disease, which makes the hands tremble out of control. So it was no surprise to me when his stroke left my father aphasic, that his speech, reading, and writing were fucked up. But not his grammar and syntax. Disturbing but no surprise either according to Chomsky’s transformational grammar and the idea that the deep structures of language and the ability to form them, the transforms, are inherited and in the genes; Chomsky’s four possible sentence transforms being the statement, the question, the negative, and the passive. I don’t know about the ability to form the passive. It may have mutated out because when I gave this exercise to a freshman class last year, Sue wrote as examples of the four types: Statement: I go to the park (we had just been to the park the day before); Question: Do I go to the park? Negative Statement: I do not go to the park; Passive: I don’t care if I go to the park; and Angel wrote as an example of a passive: Death is a turn-off. The first words to return after a stroke are nouns. His first speech therapist gave him a test. “Celine is a flower, a novelist, a dog.” He got it right. Last, what the speech therapists call the little words; prepositions, time words, relation words. When he asked did it happen today he meant either yesterday, or tomorrow or today or if the woman visitor was his wife or daughteror sister or mother. Sometimes he would just say his woman. We smiled it sounded so hip. Once he called his doctor his daughter but that was understandable. He once said Monday, Tuesday, Threesday. He always knew when he was wrong. I can’t find it. He would say shaking his head slowly, puzzled. His expression would just kill me. So I was glad when he jumped.
Chomsky’s own examples were Jack loves Jill; Jack does not love Jill. Does Jack love Jill? Jill is loved by Jack and by extension the negative passive statement: Jill is not loved by Jack.
I know two people named Jack and Jill and Jack is not loved by that Jill either only Jack’s real name is Ralph. I wrote a song about how alive kicking makes him look. The best line in that song was written by somebody else: Straighter than he ever looked straight/ Higher than he ever looks high but Kicking isn’t a song I would want to show to Uncle Leo, certainly not now, though he’s been strangely well since Marsh ODed taking a last bachelor shot on the eve of his wedding two January’s ago. There was no funeral or I guess we would have gone. But by August Leo and Cherie could finally get married and my mother was going though I did not. Cherie had them play her favorite song of Leo’s, “If I Should Lose You.” Considering his advanced age, I’m sure I would have cried. They still keep the two apartments in Westwood. Westwood is where they filmed American Gigolo and where UCLA is. Leo liked to be around young people. After we picked up Berdie, Gus drove us into Westwood to have lunch with Leo and Cherie. The freeway from LA International Airport goes past the cemetery where Marsh is buried.
—I’m the only one in the family who ever goes, says Aunt Ruthie.
Gus says Leo left money in his will to have Fran dug up and brought from Kentucky to lie beside Leo and Marsh in the mausoleum when Leo dies.
—Let’s go, says Berdie.
—Oh, you’re all so morbid, Rodie says.
—Psychologists say it’s good to talk about death and dying, says Berdie. She’s a social worker in Kansas City, about to retire. Especially if you’re afraid of it.
—Psychologists, says Ro, who doesn’t fly, don’t say you have to discuss it the minute you get off the plane.
Two years ago my Aunt Berdie started writing so in a mad moment I showed her this story thinking it would make us sisters. Before sending it to her I cut out a long part about me doing drugs with Michael while my father was jumping and how the story made a good icebreaker on my first meeting with Richard since it happened in his building. Berdie said I should not show it to Leo, should before showing it to my mother take out the part about being glad he jumped since maybe he fell and I should lighten the ending. She remembered how we all had hysterics in the car when Rodie said you don’t have to talk about death the minute you get off the plane so I should end it with how we all laughed or something so tho I never did show it to my mother I promised Berdie I would end the story with we all laughed.
It is now three years later. Even in families, people can change. Rodie now flies like a bird. Berdie is writing a novella. Olga, my mother’s cat likes to be brushed. My Uncle Nate and Jessie finally are living together after 40 years when their combined rent totals at the Gorham reached an excess of 1200 dollars this year. Leo and Cherie’s building went condo. Aunt Rodie moved from Burbank back to E. 63rd Street and this summer the whole family was together in New York, not California. It seems like a lot of people in LA are coming east from the coast as Leo calls it, like the net around Hollywood is tight now and New York is the more open town, as Leo says. Leo and Nate see each other after 20 years of weekly phone calls and monthly checks. Berdie flies into New York from Kansas City at Leo’s expense. The occasion for all this is Leo’s having been invited at the ripe old age of 87 to do two performances at the 92nd Street Y’s LYRICS AND LYRICISTS series in early June. On my birthday Leo took me to the Russian Tea Room. He had his first rehearsal that day. His cab got stuck in traffic. We were all very nervous. But the next day, Leo was cool. It was at the Songwriters Hall of Fame on 42nd Street. The list of members on the wall. The dead members list is four times as long as the living. Last year Bob Dylan was inducted. They were giving a party for Leo. When V and I walked in, Leo was standing on his one good leg, the other one up on the piano bench, pipe in mouth, listening to his old pal and collaborateur Arthur Schwartz (Jonathan’s father) play Leo’s songs. We met all these famous songwriters. Afterwards all Vito could say is, “We met the guy who wrote ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’.”
His name is Johnny Marks. His face was half paralyzed. Jay Gorey was there on crutches with his daughter Karen Ann. She was smashed. He wrote “Brother Can You Spare a Dime.” She was Travolta’s partner in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. Not the fat one. And we met Ann Rinnell. The first woman to make it in Hollywood as songwriter. She wrote, among many others, “Willow Weep for Me.” The most touching moment was when Harold Arlen came in, was wheeled in. He had just had a stroke. And Leo, who can hardly hear or see, who just had by-pass surgery and is on his second pacemaker, got up and walked to the door to greet him and I swear Harold Arlen rose slightly out of his wheel chair. He wrote “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
I learned the titles of many more of Uncle Leo’s songs. Some of them were great. His first song, when he just arrived in Hollywood in 1929 from New York, his last 200 dollars in his pocket was “My Cuties Due at Two to Two Today.” Followed by: Hallelujah; Why o Why; Paree; Jericho; “Louise,” which Chevalier made a hit. He called Leo Robin. It’s a Habit of Mine; All I Want is Just One; Beyond the Blue Horizon; My Ideal, Prisoner of Love (written for Helen Morgan but Perry Como and later James Brown made it a smash. Leo tells a wonderful story about writing that lyric while shaving in half an hour, while getting dressed to go out) One Hour with You; Please; Here Lies Love; In the Park in Paris; Give Me Liberty or Give Me Love; Love in Bloom; With Every Breath I Take; Its June in January; Love is Just Around the Corner; Double Trouble; I Don’t Want to Make History; The House Jack Built for Jill; Moonlight and Shadows; Blue Hawaii; What Have You Got That Gets Me? Ebb Tide; Thanks for the Memory; You Took the Words Right Out of my Heart; Hello Ma I’ve Done It Again; No Love, No Nothin; In Love in Vail; Gal in Calico; A Rainy Night in Rio; Oh, But I Do; For Every Man there’s a Woman; What’s Good about Goodbye; Bye Bye Baby; Diamonds Are a Girls Best Friend; A Little Girl from Little Rock; A Little More of Your Amor; In Paris and in Love; Lost in Loveliness etc.
It was all very Hollywood. Cherie’s hairdresser was there. Harry Sweet. Go talk to him about Vito’s music, Cherie said to me but I didn’t. She was pretty gone herself, but mostly on happiness.
“You must be very happy today,” I said. Suddenly she straightened and looked very straight, tossed her head gingerly and said Leo and I paid for this happiness.
I know, I said.
For 20 years.
Oh, I said. I didn’t know that.
At the Y a funny thing happened and the papers picked it up. They introduced Leo’s singing of “If I Should Lose You” as the song he sang at his wedding. The spotlight went on Cherie. She stood. The diamonds blazed. She told me it was the happiest moment of her life. Then Leo, in his small sure voice full of emotion and humor and 50 years of practice, sang it. The papers picked it up and repeated it, saying this was the song he sang to Cherie at their wedding, letting people imagine it was long ago. I thought it made a better story to tell that the wedding in question took place when Leo was 82 but everybody in the family just glared. Typical.
I found out Marshall didn’t OD on January 2 but on December 27 so now no one in the family is allowed to wish Leo “Merry Christmas.” I could have sworn it was “Happy New Year.” And, “Thanks for the Memory” is still getting Leo into trouble with the censors. It was all very hush hush but I ferreted it out through an in-law cousin.
It wasn’t easy, It was last year. Leo hadn’t worked in 20 years. Now suddenly Frank Sinatra wanted Leo to re-write “Thanks for the Memory,” 45 years later. Leo was so uptight about it no one in the family was supposed to know he was doing it till it came out on the record. But you know these show biz types. Superstitious. But Ruthie’s husband Gus, being Italian, got told about Sinatra and of course Gus told his wife Ruthie, Leo’s baby sister even at 65, and Ruthie tells everyone everything. But she drew the line at telling me what the thing was that Leo had written that had gotten him in trouble with the censors once again. Apparently it was so bad she couldn’t say it and Leo didn’t even know it was dirty. She wouldn’t tell me so I asked her son, my cousin Gary who was born on my birthday. Gary “sweetens” the Johnny Carson Show, if you know what that is. It’s like adding the voice-overs and the applause and the laugh track to the live sound. Anyway I knew the younger generation would know and that Ruthie could refuse him nothing. He found out and called me back. Apparently Uncle Leo had said something like our romance had not enough heart and too much head. Frank sang it on the TV Special. It had lines like thanks for the memory of barbecues at Malibu, of joggin in the fog, etc. And the line that went from we went to Niagara but we hardly saw the falls became, mysteriously, we had a flat in London but we didn’t stop for tea which nobody outside the family thinks is funny but we all laughed.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee