“IS IMMORTALITY theoretically possible?”
When I opened up my email just minutes after receiving word that my friend Liz Smith had died, the above words were the first thing I saw. It was from Quora Digest. I don’t even know what that is, really, and automatically delete such messages.
But something about the possibility of immortality struck me as very fitting, at that moment. You see, in the 36 years I’ve known Liz, I was sure, beyond anything I was sure of, that she was literally immortal. It was a long-running joke between us that she would most certainly out live me, despite the 30-year gap in our ages. I begged her NOT to write my obituary. She won’t now, and I’m not feeling very good about it, actually.
She enjoyed talking about her “great age” as she put it, and predicting it was all soon to be over. At every significant birthday—65, 70, 80, 90–she’d suddenly become a woeful priestess lamenting a descent into Hades.
I would be obliged at that point to remind her that in fact she was in disgustingly robust health, had a fabulous career, was enjoying a great life, and was worshipped by almost every human she knew. She’d cheer right up. That’s exactly what she wanted to hear. Then she’d fall snugly into her proper place as an undeniable life force—a bawdy, laughing, fiercely intelligent, infuriatingly impatient, always curious blazing sun—a sun around which so many circled and flourished. For sure, that was my experience.
I will dispense with boring you all about my own life, Before-Liz. (You think B.C and A.D. are significant markers of history? Forget it. B.L. and A.L. are the real deal in my book.) It is enough to say that I was not professional in any way, or inclined to work. One half year of high school was enough for me. But I read a great deal. Good books, the Great Works, trash and everything in-between. It was the in-between that introduced me to Liz Smith. Because, of course I read Cosmopolitan! How I enjoyed Liz’s saucy celebrity interviews, how much more did I enjoy it when she became a gossip columnist in 1976? And then—the unexpected but ridiculously juicy cherry on top of the sundae–she joined the slap-happy gang on “Live at Five” during the newspaper strike? Like everybody else, I thought I “knew” Liz—surely she was writing and talking just for me, to me!
While I dozed through my life, working at a broken down antique store in Hoboken, New Jersey, I also amused myself by writing long letters to Liz Smith. Handwritten. I had many opinions about stars, scandals, what Liz wrote and said. Sometimes I chastised her and told her she was just all wrong about this or that. I even passed along little bits of gossip, culled from friends who worked on the peripheries of show biz. This went on for several years, with no reply from Liz. Well, she couldn’t rely, because I never signed my name or put down a return address! Passive aggressive to the max.
But one day during the summer of 1981, I changed my life. I decided to look directly at the sun, without blinking.
Elizabeth Taylor was in town, with “The Little Foxes.” Since I was more or less able to make my own hours at the antique store (“broken down” hardly begins to describe it or my employers) I spent a good deal of my time hanging around the then-Martin Beck theater, watching Miss Taylor come and go, running after her limo—something I’d been doing since 1973, actually—observing, listening. So, in my excellent hand—nowadays an unreadable scrawl—I wrote down all my “adventures” and what I’d heard was going on behind the scenes of La Liz’s big Broadway hit. I signed my name and put down my address. Things happen when they’re supposed to happen, I guess.
Two days later a small, neat envelope arrived with Daily News letterhead, and “Liz Smith” typed above the name of the paper. Well, this was it. I was about to be told how truly insane I was, how annoying. She was gonna sic the cops on me if I didn’t cease and desist. I almost threw the note away, unopened, so sure was I that exposing myself had been a pathway to my eventual residence at a mental facility. Of course, reader, I opened it: “Dear Denis, at last! What has taken you so long to sign your name? I think you are smart and funny. Stay in touch. Call my office! If I’m not in, speak to St. Clair Pugh. Do not be afraid of him. Call!”
I called. I spoke to St. Clair and was indeed properly terrified. “Liz says come in to see her tomorrow after she’s done with ‘Live at Five.’ Wait for her in the lobby of the Murray Hill Mews.” He paused and added “Certainly took you long enough.” Click! (St. turned out to be a doll, and was perhaps the first and only gentleman I ever knew. But he did enjoy his fearsome reputation.)
Ah, but the day of meeting turned out to be far more interesting than I’d even imagined. Because when I got up and opened the Daily News to Liz Smith’s column, there were all my words, all about Miss Taylor! Well, my words neatened up, grammatically corrected, written to flow; written as a column. But it was unmistakably “my stuff”—two words I’d use endlessly, and often peevishly, in years to come. I was shocked.
When we met up in her lobby, after I’d given her frosted lips and frosted tips the once over, and she likewise my tatty sneakers, jeans and tee-shirt, I blurted, still clutching the paper: “You put it in print. I mean, how could you? How do you know I’m not crazy? Maybe I made it up?” She laughed, cackled, really. “Oh, honey, I was just waiting for you to sign your name. I can tell what’s real. But for God’s sake, you have to learn how to type. Your thoughts will flow much better. I’ll pay for it. You are old enough to drink, right? Come with me to the El Rio Grande. It’s right here in the building. We’ll have a margarita. Good thing they don’t have a dress code. Hold these things for me. I have a book for you upstairs.”
I had a drink, I held her things, and she gave me a book. I learned to type. I did not allow Liz to pay for it, although she would later say she did. She would also say in “The Tale of Denis” that she’d put an item in the column urging her “anonymous fan” to please sign his name. Liz was the sun, remember, and in telling her story—and yours!—she had to be the life-giving force–the source of your energy. (She was that, but she was also a star that couldn’t help gilding her own lily just a bit.)
To be honest, I thought my little adventure in journalism, my tequila tete a tete with Liz, was just one of those things, something amusing to dine out on, at a cheap diner. I hardly imagined she’d really stay in touch. She did. She sent me books, she sent me to movies, to plays, and she asked me what I thought about this or that. And she urged me to keep on writing. I saw what she did with what I sent. I learned how to compose an “item.” I tried to learn where to put the commas. I learned her voice—which luckily coincided neatly with the one I already had, in rough, unpolished form. (That we had much in common— politics, films, favorite and un-favorite people, a passion for history and for reading in general–was a tremendous help. It was the glue that would hold us together, personally and professionally for three decades.)
In time, she would also send my mother, dying in a hospice, gifts and encouraging notes about a wayward son. “You don’t need to worry about him anymore” was one message, which accompanied a gift basket of fruits and chocolates. My mother couldn’t believe it when I told her I was surprisingly OK. She believed Liz and was greatly comforted.
She sent checks (“Darling, you have been so helpful…”), she introduced me to her friends, she tried to get me decent work. This was not easy. I fled in needless terror after a few hours with the Broadway agent Shirley Herz (“I’m going out to get a bagel” were my last words. Later, when I knew her, “I’m going out to get a bagel” could always make Shirley laugh.) But I managed to hang on for the six months that Joe Armstrong’s magazine The Movies lasted, courtesy of Miss Smith’s talking me up to Joe. I didn’t do much but run errands and collect what seemed to me an impossibly handsome salary.
After that debacle, Liz called me to El Rio Grande yet again. “Honey, my friend Iris Love, the archaeologist is coming in from China. She’ll be staying here for a while. She needs help, she needs an assistant. She can be difficult, but I can’t seem to find you any other work. And you can help me out a little too, if you want.”
“If I want.” Poor Iris. While I did act as an assistant to the estimable Miss Love—not very ably, truth be told!—my real job was for Liz. I became, finally, in the spring of 1984, “Liz Smith’s assistant.”
With my mother gone, no siblings and the rest of my family too dysfunctional to carry on with, I found another family with Liz at 160 East 38th Street, apartment 26-A. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that Liz became a mother figure—and one with whom I would have an even more tempestuous relationship than I did with my own. And there were siblings, at last!—St. Clair, Diane Judge, Rachel Clark, Iris Love, Mary Jo McDonough.
In the early years, Liz never asked me to do anything. She told me—cover that damn show, go here, write that, improve this shit if you can. She knew that given a chance to dither or think too much, I’d falter–or flee! Later, when I had enough confidence to tell her what I wanted—and what I didn’t want—she was both pleased and unnerved. As Auntie Mame said, “Why the hell did I buy him those damn long pants?” We struggled mightily at times. I could loathe her at noon and be willing to die for her at six. Boredom was not an option. Quitting was an option, or so I thought. And when I did it lasted nine months. Like a Texan Corleone, just when I thought I was out, she pulled me back in. (It helped that she was pulling me back in from antidepressants and analysis—expensive time in which I talked about—her. Yep, she was a force to be reckoned with.)
Save for one person—my guy Bruce, who has put up with me since 1976—everyone I know and love today, I met through Liz, or my work with Liz. Because of Liz I saw London, I saw France. I saw Madonna’s underpants! I even got to formally interview Elizabeth Taylor, the woman who sort of started it all. Taylor was vastly unimpressed by me but that hardly mattered. I forged ahead, during the course of our uninspired chat, and told her of my “Little Foxes” letter and what it had wrought. One of Taylor’s perfect circumflex eyebrows moved slightly, and her freshly painted mouth uttered “Cute.” The best part of the Taylor experience was telling Liz about it, over fried chicken wings, laughing.
I’ll miss the laugh most of all. The energy. When you sat with Liz and she focused all of her attention on you, you existed only to please her, to impress her, to make her laugh. They should retire the word “Charm” now that Liz is gone, or put her photo next to it in the dictionary.
Ditto for Curiosity because right to the end, she never stopped wanting to know more, and was always willing to change and expand her mind, to hone her outlook. She never went anywhere without pen and pad, three newspapers, a book, and the latest issues of Vanity Fair and The Week. There was always something new, interesting, funny or horrible to write up or just tell you about.
There would also have to be a Liz portrait next to Impatience. Once she knew you, Liz believed you could read her mind. That precise words were sometimes necessary and that her thoughts traveled faster than the speed of sound—and certainly faster than your own!—was a burdensome thing. But she handled most of the mental sloths in her life with pretty good grace.
We will never exchange books again. We will never spend a lunch hour pondering the Tudors or the unhappy lives of Mary Queen of Scots and Marie Antoinette. (Which could then morph into stories about Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Vanessa Redgrave or Norma Shearer.) We will never…oh, all the little things. The big things are nothing. Like Blanche DuBois’ beauty, they are transitory, and Liz knew it.
She worked hard, and made something unique, human and powerfully instructive out of a mere “gossip” column. But she knew she also lived under a lucky star, that she’d been blessed. She never took her blessings for granted, or coveted the power of her column for the sake of power. In fact, she laughed at the concept of herself as a fear-inducing dragon of the old Hedda/Louella days. She enjoyed her fame innocently, like a child. It was fun! A “zest for life” doesn’t begin to cover it. She didn’t even care much about gossip. She’d interview the big movie star because it would be good for the column. But she’d rather sit at the table with writers and philosophers. And she’d rather her readers knew what those writers and philosophers were saying.
It’s too soon for me to attempt to be eloquent. In fact, I doubt I ever will be, on Liz. And I won’t be sentimental. Love, respect and loyalty aside, we didn’t have a sentimental relationship. It was more “if-your-blood-pressure-gets-any-higher-you’re-going-to-have-a-stroke” kind of thing. Liz herself wrote, in her autobiography, “Natural Blonde”: “I want to remain, not sentimental, but full of sentiment. So I still cry at the 23rd Psalm, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and at the movies.” Me too! So I’ll still cry when the deer is shot in “The Yearling” but I won’t cry over Liz. I know for sure she’d rather I have a drink.
Liz had a great life; she lived it more than fully; with incredible energy, intelligence and self-awareness. And she allowed me to live my own life far more expansively than I could have possibly imagined as a 7th grade dropout and teenage runaway. You don’t weep when such a gift is inevitably taken. There is only gratitude that you were wise enough—most of the time–to appreciate what was being offered, so generously.
In fact, the best last word on Liz is by Liz. It is the final chapter of her book, in which she looks over her life, what she wanted (everything!), what she got (almost everything!) and contemplates, as she puts it, “The End.” Pages 441 to 445 to be exact. I urge all who admired Liz to check out this last chapter. It is as perfect a summation of a life richly lived—and with almost twenty more years to go!–as I have ever read. Liz will have the last word, circa 2000:
“When the Fates ladled out their stuff, they said: ‘We’ll make this one insecure and give her an inferiority complex. She’ll end up behaving as if she has a massive ego, so no one will know the difference. Let’s also give her lots and lots of luck.’
“They did; so far.”
“THIS is the inescapable fact: on November 9th, the United States elected a dishonest, inept, unbalanced, and immoral human being as its president and Commander-in-Chief. He has daily proven unyielding to appeals of decency, unity, moderation, or fact. He is willing to imperil the civil piece and the social fabric of his country simply to satisfy his narcissism and to excite the worst inclinations of his core followers.” That is David Remnick in the August 28th issue of The New Yorker. This was written prior to the president’s unhinged “rally” in Phoenix, Arizona.
Other than saying I agree with Remnick there is nothing new to elaborate upon regarding his quote. We all saw it coming. And there is more to come.
The ruling party’s power in Washington will not put country first, forget that. (“Real” Republicans are horrified by Trump’s stupidity and vulgarity, but the reason they haven’t fled is because he’s saying a lot of things they actually believe. They just don’t want it voiced with such honest ugliness.)
I will offer this aside, however. Never in my lifetime have I seen such an unmanly man hold the highest office in the land. Eight months of non-stop whining and complaining. This is a powerful masculine figure, a role model for America’s youth? It is astounding to me how the people who voted for him, can look at this over-privileged person–rich from birth, who has absolutely no experience working hard or handling adversity—and feel a kinship with his babyish, daily grievances. I’m more of a “real man” than Trump. And believe me, that’s not a statement I make lightly, in my loafers,
For many years, both sides—Democrats and Republicans—have positioned themselves as total victims. They have refused to look at one another as anything but an enemy with no room for compromise or rational debate. This toxic air of unrelenting grievance has led to this—a man who is unashamed to get up every morning and wear a weeping scarlet V for Victim on his chest.
A bully is always revealed in the end as so much weaker than those he terrorizes. Here we have a bully who revealed himself right from the starting gate. And yet he is president. What does that say about all of us—right, left and center? We let it happen.
P.S. This unhappy rant is simply something to get off my chest. Nothing will change. The daily calls for impeachment and/or resignation by Democratic pundits and journalists are pie-in-the-sky fantasies. (If Rachel Maddow works herself up any further regarding the byzantine Russian investigation, she is going to need serious meds. If she’s not on them already. That could, perhaps, explain her increasingly annoying and frenetic and repetitive delivery.)
Trump will serve out four terrible years. If, in that time, Democrats get their heads out their asses, drop the smugness and work on strong candidates for 2020, Trump might be a one-tern president. But I have basically lost all faith in all politicians, from either side. And that includes the hot mess that was Hillary Clinton. Over two years ago I predicted that if she ran, she couldn’t win. This was before Trump appeared. After Trump, I knew she was a dead duck. Of course I voted for her—even in my role as a Cassandra, I kept my sanity and hoped for a miracle.
I don’t blame the Russians—although surely that didn’t help. Hubris was Clinton’s downfall. That and liberal fatigue. After eight Obama years, the pendulum was bound to swing back. This is political life and reality.
But who could have predicted the pendulum would also come with a ready-made pit, named Donald Trump.
I learned the truth at 17….actually I’d learned the truth at 11. Here I am at 17, having learned WAY too much. I can’t decide what is more alarming–the wallpaper in my mother’s kitchen…wearing vertical stripes on a 110 pound body, or my incredible Liz Taylor “Raintree Country” eyebrows. I still retain a good eyebrow, but nothing nearly as determined. Friends always wanted me to pluck. I resisted.
I was visiting my mom in her Hollis, Queen apartment, two years after I’d left home. They were rarely happy visits. Obviously
Many years ago—back in the fabulous early 1980’s (well, if you didn’t factor in AIDS), B. went off to Denmark. He was a medical researcher and was … researching in Denmark. B. was away a while. He loved Denmark. He loved the work he was doing and the people he was working with. Especially one fellow. Cute and smart. Doctor smart. Just like B. Mr. wOw was jealous.
When B. went off for a second stay in Denmark, he said, “Why don’t come along? Everyone would love to meet you.” This was odd. B. was and is a shy guy, who needs some prodding in the social area. One of the reasons he liked me is that I wasn’t shy, once I relaxed, and would always strike up animated conversations with strangers, and had friends, and brought people over. This eventually ended—it was too much work for me: I cooked I cleaned, they were my friends, I entertained. I got tired. I was working nine to five.
But B. gregarious himself, in another country?! This I had to see. So I braved my very first plane ride to Denmark. I was terrified, but made a hell of a lot of acquaintances during the seven or eight hours in the air. I also drank a lot. Not that it helped. (It was the beginning of many years of air travel, and imbibing way up there.) Denmark was wonderful, and in many ways B. was a different person. Not totally, but that’s another more serious tale I met B.’s friend and was really jealous. But, I kind of got over it. I loved Denmark too. And we often went to a park in the middle of Copenhagen and admired the swans. We loved swans, despite their famously irritable nature. They were always polite to us.
I left Denmark. B. followed a few weeks later. He returned — depressed, it seemed to me. Was he longing for Denmark and his doctor pal? Was he regretting me? I was so childish. So poor. Not his equal, I was sure. Finally, I asked him, “Do you want to go back? Do you want to separate? We’ve only been together six years, we’re young. You have time to make another life.” His answer was a curt, final, “no!” (Big girly conversations are not his forte, though he allows me an annual monologue.) He seemed to improve somewhat, but I thought he still missed Denmark. It troubled me. Then one day at the supermarket I found a large plastic swan. I brought it home, filled the bathtub and put him in to float.
When B. came from work I said we’d received a visitor, who was splashing around in our tub. B. hurried upstairs, and I wondered what kind of visitor he was hoping to find in our tub? (That cute kid down the block?) It was the plastic swan, serene. B. was amused, perhaps even touched. I was (am) so rarely sensitive when I should be. He seemed better after that.
We tucked the swan away, and I never thought of it again until Easter rolled around. I woke up Easter Sunday to find our swan jam-packed with sweet goodies of all kinds. I love candy. B. said: “I heard the flapping of wings last night, and he suddenly appeared with all this stuff. It was quite a journey. He can stay awhile, yes?” Of course! Who turns away a swan bearing chocolate?
We must have been hospitable enough. Every year since—more than 25, now—our Easter swan has arrived, loaded down with sweet gifts. He always comes when I am asleep. Sometimes B. expresses concern about the weather, and the swans great age, but he always comes through, not much altered by time, though no great conversationalist. He stays until we’ve pretty much finished off his gifts. He always leaves quietly in the night. Sometimes B. is awake and bears a message—the swan has had a relaxing time, loves us, and will be back next year.
All relationships have rituals. Funny little nicknames and habits. Sometimes they start out annoying but oddly you grow to depend on and even love them. The swan started out as a nervous joke by an insecure Mr. Wow, hoping to charm his B. Today, if anything happened to that damn plastic swan I think I’d have to be strapped down and medicated.
I’d like to go back to Denmark someday with B. Look at the swans again. And maybe bring a present back to our swan (he’s definitely a Dane.) After all, he’s given us so much. And I don’t just mean chocolate rabbits.
Happy Easter/Passover/Nothing but a weekend to you all—whether it is a time of spiritual contemplation, bunny rabbits and colored eggs. Or just a few days off.
I must go. Jelly beans are beckoning.
love, Mr. W and B.
Really? Honestly? Kidding me?
These are the only things that have come to mind in the wake of the ridiculous over-reaction, and over-analysis of Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi ad. I caught it—with dramatic buildup from CNN’s drama-queen deluxe, Don Lemon, Tuesday night.
I was braced for the worst. What did I see? Miss Jenner—who I wouldn’t recognize walking down the street, unless somebody was holding a sign over her head with her name on it.
She is seen drifting through a bunch of pristine, model-worthy protesters made up of various genders, colors, religions (a smiling woman in traditional Muslim garb is issue-placed, photographing the event.)
Kendall appears to be having some sort of internal activist struggle involving a blonde wig and her commitment to the cause—whatever the cause is. Finally, holding a can of Pepsi, Miss Jenner approaches a stern-looking policeman, and hands him her soft drink. Happy protesters dance and cheer. The End.
The CNN panel was, of course, horror-struck. OMG—it was trivializing Black Lives Matter and other important protest groups. Miss Kendall was not fit to place herself in such an ad. A pox on her, and Pepsi.
Well, I didn’t even think of Black Lives Matter, or any other particular group. It seemed very amorphous, insipid, hippie-ish, and it was an ad for soda! Since when is it new to trivialize, capitalize, sentimentalize or make money out of serious real life situations? Coke urged the world to sing and everybody join hands. Was that an insult to those to wanted peace on earth and general civility?
Was Natalie Portman ever the wife of a slain president? Was Bradley Cooper a military sniper? Was “Flying Nun” and “Gidget” actress Sally Field ever a poor, gritty factory worker for heaven’s sake?!
This is an absurd reaction to the perceived (not incorrect) superficiality of Miss Jenner’s image and her flamboyant family. It is also fake outrage and hyper-sensitivity at its most annoying—like college students wanting “safe places” from opinions they don’t share.
We live in a world where innocent women and children are the ho-hum collateral damage of battle in the Middle East; a world where hundreds of gay men are arrested, tortured and killed in Russia. But Kendall Jenner and Pepsi are monsters. The ad has been pulled. Apocalypse avoided.
Now, a commercial that does annoy me is the new Volkswagen spot. Here, a young couple are shown having sex in a variety of cars (we see the vehicle shaking, with fogged-up windows). Each time they do it, they have another baby and get a bigger car. I think it ends with five children.
Not only is it a bit tasteless (can’t these people get a room?) But it totally ignores the very real issue of earth’s overpopulation as well as cash-poor American states such as Louisiana, New Mexico, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, etc. (Are the down-and-out residents of these states thinking, yeah, let’s get a brand new car, every time we make a brand new baby—no problem.) I’d love to know who—other than Volkswagen–is sponsoring this paean to endless, cheery, childbearing? This, in a U.S. where middle-class families struggle to prosper, even with both parents working full-time.
And the ad was surely conceived by a man. After multiple back-to-back births the woman still looks trim and energetic. The husband has grown some stylish facial hair.
Let’s see Don Lemon and CNN do a six-panel 45-minute segment on that.
Here’s me and my valentine, back in, well, not quite “the day” but a day—and from the looks of it, a happy one.
He (B) has known me since I was 18. I turned 25 during the first months we lived together. He deserves a Purple Heart, the Medal of Freedom, Medal of Honor, the Legion d’ honneur, and certainly something from the American Psychiatric Association: Patience and Understanding Above and Beyond the Call of Duty.
I asked him just before we moved in together, in 1976, “Are you sure?” He said, “Absolutely.” Since then, the only wise decision I’ve ever made is never to ask him that again.
“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
For centuries we have repeated and reflected on those words from the Bible, often drawing comparisons to this or that in our own life and time.
But have we ever pondered what it will profit a man who gains the whole world but who has no soul to lose?
Now might be a good time to start that particular pondering. I’m sure some of us have already begun the unhappy process.
Being a writer (of highly dubious sorts, as you all know) it is always an agony to realize one has made an error, allowed a typo to go through, misspelled a name, forgot to cite WHEN or WHERE something has or will be occurring. I’ve been told on several occasions that my own errors are “dyslexic.” I like that because it is so much nicer than the truth–stupidity.
However, this morning all my suffering on this matter evaporated. Because, I don’t make errors. I am presenting “alternative facts.”
I have to give a big shout out to Kelleyanne Conway, who tried to explain it all to Chuck Todd on Meet The Press, but as the lovely Kellyanne noted, Chuck was just getting “too dramatic.” She and the guy at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave might have to re-think their relationship with him–and the press in general, if he continued to carry on about, well, factual facts.
Some people might have thought Conway was being condescending and threatening to Mr. Todd. But she was just a little frustrated—this entire alternative facts thing is new (about 48 hours new). And difficult to explain. Conway furrowed her brow quite a bit, trying awfully hard to make the dramatic Mr. Todd stick to the facts—the alternative facts. She always looks so tired. Well, long nights are mandatory when the Reich is new.
I only speak for myself, but I am deeply relieved to find out about alternative facts. It’s like discovering an alternate universe. Just like it, actually. Sundays are usually a drag. I’m edgy over starting up the work week again. Not today. I am joyfully unbound and relaxed by the guidance of Kellyanne. (I know she won’t mind me referring to her by her first name–we’re simpattico. And if you think I didn’t spell that correctly; big mistake, I DID. It’s all alternative. Get it?)
By the way, Hillary Clinton is the president. Not a lie, an alternative fact.
Talk to Kellyanne about it. She’s sure to agree, yes?
Some of you may have heard about that ridiculous “Urban Legend” British TV series.
Along with other questionable tales, the show regurgitates the flat-out lie that Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson and Marlon Brando attempted to flee New York Cityafter the 9/11 attacks. (They were in the city for Michael’s concerts, celebrating a coming album and a reunion with his brothers.) One of Jackson’s children, daughter Paris, objected so strenuously to the trailer, that Sky News, which produced the series, junked that episode. For now.
However, it reminded me that I attended the first Jackson concert, in New York, just three days before the New York and Washington terrorism. I had taken a hiatus from my job with Liz Smith (I quit, in a huff, much high dudgeon). But hard feelings had softened in the months I’d been away, and Liz, who was then working for Newsday, suggested that I cover the concert. Or as she put it, “Denis, you do it. I’d rather set myself on fire!” (I had already been providing items for the column again, much as I had back when Liz and I first connected in 1981. I saw this as a failure on my part—I still felt righteous indignation over the events that led to my quitting– but the connection with her was too strong—and it had been my only real job, in my life!)
And so, to prevent Liz from putting herself to the torch, I did it. Newsday wanted 500 words. I gave them considerably more. They printed it, much edited, in the Saturday edition. Miss Smith called to compliment me, and asked if I had “any more?” She said, “I’ll use it in Monday’s column and credit you.” I assured her I had plenty more.
And, good as her word, she used it, and wrote kindly of my talent. Of course, nobody was reading gossip on September 11th. I’d gone to my therapist that morning, on 14th Street and Fifth Ave, happy about the column, the Newsday credit and maybe things were looking up?
That was 8:45. Fifteen minutes later I stepped out onto the street and realized things were not looking up at all.
Anyway, for what it’s worth, here’s the original version of that night, which I have never forgotten, because of what it was—nuts!—and what it came to represent, in the aftermath of 9/11.
Within a couple of months I was back in Liz Smith’s office. Like chicken feathers to tar…
September 8th 2001
TO BE honest, Michael Jackson didn’t need to throw himself a party Friday night, after the first of his two Madison Square Garden “Happy 30th Anniversary/I’m Still Here/I’m Coming Back, Don’t Try To Stop Me” concerts. The concert itself was quite enough.
What possibly could have topped such jarring extremes as a painfully skinny, wildly energetic Whitney Houston opening up the show—with help from muscular, fur-vested Usher—followed immediately by a swollen, supine Marlon Brando?
Brando, perversity incarnate, nearly brought the crowd to riot as he rambled on about dead babies, “killed by machetes…” Yeah, he finally got around to the children’s hospital Michael Jackson was financing, but by that time, the audience was ready to machete Marlon. A great moment, folks.
But as nothing succeeds like excess, surely the motto of Michael and his closest friend Elizabeth Taylor, an intimate fete would never do on this night of nights. So under the aegis of David Guest, Tavern On The Green was transformed into a country carnival, complete with candy stalls, games, a lemonade stand (conveniently next to one of the bars, so the innocent lemonade could be spiked with vodka should the revelers so desire.)
There was an innumerable supply of lush stuffed animals to take away, a man penciling, portraits, even “Michael’s Freshen Up” counter. (Everything was titled “Michael’s this or that”—I guess to remind us why we were gathered.) “Freshen Up” was a spot where ladies and gentlemen could, paste themselves back together as the humidity caused coifs to collapse and make-up to slide off siliconed cheeks and into siliconed valleys.
Of course this was a Michael Jackson production, and there was no mistaking his magic touch. For the first hour or so, little people were assigned to welcome the guests, trilling a verse from the famous song performed by the Munckins in “The Wizard of Oz.” You know, the one that ends, “We wish to welcome you to Munchkin Land!” The snippet of song also blasted out of speakers. Over and over. Over and over the little people had to sing along, looking cheery. After some time, the loudspeakers were getting very angry glances. The one verse, repeated endlessly must have been amusing to whoever thought of it. The incoming horde was not amused. Even the cheery little people looked to be getting cranky, not to mention being knocked around as the entrance became increasingly clotted with celebs and looky-loos. Eventually, we were treated to the entire “Wizard of Oz” soundtrack, which wasn’t exactly get up and boogie music, but at least the songs began and ended. (Later a live band performed vigorously but it was getting to close to 2:30, and many guests were carnivaled-out by that point.)
There was also no mistaking Jackson’s hand in the eclectic guest list—a fantastic goulash of stellar lights. Jon Lovitz…David Hasslehoff…Ann Miller… June Haver (Miss Haver a 1950’s Twentieth Century Fox star, appeared to know the lyrics to every Jackson song performed during the show. She also stood and shrieked like a teen-ager at some points!)…Jane Powell…Jane Russell…Margret O’Brien
…Gina Lollobrigida (“loved you in ‘Solomon and Sheba’ said a fan. “You remember that?” replied the Italian icon, who still pouts convincingly. This is no mean feat at 70-plus)…Montel Williams, cheerfully submitting to having a glittery tattoo painted on his neck…Yoko Ono…Caroll Baker, she of the unmistakable honky tonk voice (devotees might want to know that Baker’s sweaty 1963 potboiler “Station Six Sahara” was snapped up by the British film industry and put in a vault. Though the way Baker told it, she didn’t seem to mind that this one might never be screened again)…Cory Feldman and a lady in a formidable hat, under which, it was suggested, hid Cory Haim…Angie Harmon and her new hubby. The handsome couple had nuzzled affectionately at the concert during Billy Gillman’s rendition of Michael’s passionate ode to a rat, “Ben”…Janet Leigh…at least one member of the made-on-TV band, O’Town
…”One Life To Live” soap queen Erika Slezak. “Have you ever wondered how long a soap opera year is?” asked a “OLTL” fan (considering that on soaps, one day can last weeks). Erica replied with a good-natured laugh, “56 days. We figured it out once. But no matter what, the soaps always celebrate the major holidays. After all, we have to stay grounded!
…Liza Minnelli, looking more like herself, having removed the big, poofy, un-Liza-like wig she wore performing at the Garden. While paying tribute to Jackson, Miss Minnelli at the same time offered another one of those up-from the-floor “returns” for which she is now famous. The indestructible star was in strong voice during her two numbers, and, at the end of “Never Never Land” turned to Michael and sang, at last, a few bars of her mother’s “Over The Rainbow.” Spine-tingly stuff!…Aaron Carter, the latest teeny-bopper throb, cuter even than his older BackStreet Boy brother Nick (Aaron was awfully patient with grabbers. He’s at that stage of burgeoning stardom where people think it’s okay to handle you in a familiar manner).
Patty Duke, far cheerier in real life than in many of her recent TV roles (always the tragic, bitter, intense mother of a dead or missing child) is excited about auditioning for a coming production of “Oklahoma” playing, as she puts it, “the old lady.” In truth, Duke looks more like she could tackle Ado Annie, the gal who cain’t say no!
I don’t know if any of the N’Sync’s or Britney made the party, because all the boys looked N’Sync-y, and every girl tries to look like Miss Spears. Blessedly nobody has had time to incorporate the now-famous snake into their Britney costuming. There were also hundreds of just plain folks and families; people who managed to ante up the ducats to attend the concert and party. Michael Jackson fans really seemed to be enjoying the circus-y atmosphere. What’s not to like about a man on stilts and fortune tellers?
Dinner was served late, but the entire evening was running at least an hour past schedule. Nobody seemed to mind. Much. This was, after all, one of those once in a lifetime events, yes? It was a tasty fish entree, but few ate, because only moments after the plates began to hover precariously over the heads of the hungry mass, the idol himself arrived. And now we witness the ritual of The Star Entrance: the room tilts, almost literally. Breathing intensifies or stops. Common sense and good manners go right out the window. Elbows become lethal weapons (“That’s okay lady, I was going in for a vasectomy anyway!”) feet—in loafers, dress shoe, stiletto heel– press into the embroidered chairs, as the bedazzled try to stand above the crowd and crane for a better look, tiny cameras appear, perfectly normal looking people burst into tears. I’ve seen this before, from Julia Roberts to Madonna to Tom Cruise. The power of illusion, the lure of celebrity never ebbs. In Jackson’s case, there is an extra element of hunger and curiosity—does he really look so odd? Alas, yes.
Jackson, in glittery white, received the crushing tribute in his usual soft-spoken manner. The ego so blatantly displayed during the Garden tribute is muted—I thought I would go mad if I had to sit through one more “He’s so wonderful” film clip. Now, at the party, Michael is a pale, mink-lashed Bambi, caught forever in the burning headlights of fame. Comforted by the familiar, yet wary of the cost, he is the cynical cynosure of every eye. The heat and light bear down and it seems impossible that the star can get enough oxygen. But of course for better or worse, this adulation is his oxygen.
Time will tell—and very shortly too—if Jackson can recover his wounded career in America. But judging by his wildly enthusiastic concert audience and the party-goers who would have sold their mothers on the spot to speak, touch, be photographed with Jackson, the word “comeback” might now be used confidently.
He has for so long been a bird with a wing down, it is surely past due to mend that wing. Michael was, and perhaps still is, considered “weird.” How else would you describe a man who refutes [never proved] child molestation charges tarted-up with inch-long false eyelashes?! But this is 2001, readers. Is Michael any weirder these days than, say, Anne Heche or Gary Condit or that hand puppet at the MTV Awards who earned the undying enmity of Jennifer Lopez? I think not. And at least Michael has talent. And that talent is still worshipped by his peers and by those who have risen since his fall. When the ravishing Beyonce of Destiny’s Child shyly approached Jackson’s table, the room went into spasms. Someone smart should team these two up for something. If that “Phantom of The Opera” project ever materialized… (Yeah, I know, she’s part of a group. But how long do you think that’s gonna last? Beyonce, like Diana Ross, is the engine than revs Destiny’s Child. She’s a lovely, gracious girl. But her destiny screams “solo career!”)
Not on hand for the party part of Jackson’s night, his loyal friend Elizabeth Taylor. But this rodent-copulation wouldn’t have suited La Liz. The crush would have endangered her fragile back, the hour was late. The heat was oppressive. And then there was presence of so many contemporaries—the MGM gals.
Not that ET has anything but the fondest feelings for her sisters in celluloid. But at no point would she have enjoyed being captured in some “nostalgia” photo op. It is Taylor, after all, who is Michael’s “best” friend. It is she who sat on his right, a baudy blonde queen, at the concert itself. And it is she—surprisingly refreshed, focused and pretty again, working that feather boa like a burlesque cutie—who introduced from the stage, the re-united Jacksons.
Just as Michael is a universe apart from most other pop stars, Taylor inhabits another plane in her world. Like an oil well (or a diamond mine) Taylor is a great natural resource—inevitably depleted by time, but still rare, useful, a substance to be reckoned with. But even Taylor knows for whom the bell tolls. It is significant that she now insists on being introduced as “Dame Elizabeth Taylor.” Just as her friend Michael must always be called “The King of Pop.” Who are they trying to convince?
Taylor’s charismatic, cheerful hairdresser, the eternally cowboy-hatted Jose Eber attended the party, along with other member’s of ET’s entourage. “Wasn’t she great? She’s in peak form again” he said. When somebody began to wax mystical about Taylor’s legendary qualities, her enduring stardom, Eber, smiled patiently, “She’s really a very normal woman you know.” Just a Dame, right Jose? And Eber is the average back-comber at any neighborhood salon.
Around her neck and dangling from her ears, Miss Taylor wore a set of famous rubies, gifts from third hubby Mike Todd.
Before filmmaker/showman Todd perished in a 1957 plane crash, he had hosted an overblown, riotous event at the old Madison Square Garden to celebrate himself and the little woman, and 1,000 close friends. Also it was promotion for his movie, “Around The World In Eighty Days.” On that that night in 1957, La Liz sported the same set of rubies.
Could she possibly have remembered that long ago gala at the Garden, and chosen them specifically, for sentiment’s sake? A good luck talisman, as she once again tried to help an important man in her life by her singular presence? I like to think so.
The party went on and on. It was Friday night, after all. Then Jackson left. And as if he was the air that filled a balloon, the celebration slowly deflated. Michael’s departure was as dramatic as his entrance, he exited murmuring soft “thank yous,” waving, blowing little kisses, a sphinx behind the eyeliner and lip gloss, a star not ready to fade.
He has morphed before our eyes into something, well—a little unexpected. Certainly he has changed physically. But twice married, twice divorced, a father of two, press-bruised, and scandal-braised, his tentative off-stage posture seems to suggest—not invincibility (“Invincible” is the all-to-obvious title of his coming album),
but a more vulnerable offering, “Take a closer look. I’m still the boy I was. And I’m waiting here for you.”