Books postsWednesday April 27, 2016
Ethel Merman by Arthur Laurents
“In the Gypsy company, she was famous for a sexual joke she didn't get. When she asked Jack Klugman, her leading man, whether Tab Hunter was gay, Jack replied, 'Is the Pope Catholic?' 'Yes,' said Ethel, still waiting for the answer. Not bright, no, but endearing and despite a life spent in saloons, childlike.”
'SI is Part of a Giant Plan to Flaunt All Decency'
The following are letters sent to the relatively new Sports Illustrated magazine about their spring 1955 baseball issue, which featured New York Giants superstar Willie Mays, Giants manager Leo Durocher, and his wife, actress Lorraine Day, on the cover:
Up until now, I have not found anything in particularly bad taste in SI, but by golly, you print a picture on the cover in full color, of a white woman embracing a negro (with a small letter) man, you make it evident that even in a magazine supposedly devoted to healthful and innocent sports, you have to engage in South-bating [sic]. . . . I care nothing about these three people, but I care a heck of a lot about the proof this picture gives that SI is part of a giant plan to flaunt all decency, so long as the conquered of 1865 can be reminded of their eternal defeat. —Shreveport, La.
To tell you that I was shocked at SI’s cover would be putting it mildly. . . . The informative note inside that this Mrs. Leo Durocher, a white woman, with her arm affectionately around the neck of Willie Mays, a Negro ballplayer. . . . Let me say to you, Sir, the most appalling blow ever struck at this country, the most disastrous thing that ever happened to the people of America, was the recent decision of the Supreme Court, declaring segregation unconstitutional. —Nashville, Tenn.
Please cancel my subscription to SI immediately. . . . This is an insult to every decent white woman everywhere. —Fort Worth, Tex.
Such disgusting racial propaganda is not fit for people who are trying to build a stronger nation based on racial integrity. —New Orleans, La.
They're recounted in Bill Madden's book, “1954: The Year Willie Mays and the First Generation of Black Superstars Changed Major League Baseball Forever,” and are a reminder of how far we've come. Also not, since the arguments, and the anger, and the combination of Southern defensiveness and entitlement, feel familiar on another level: a level of class, or immigrant status, or religious affiliation, or sexual preference. It doesn't go away; it just shifts.
Why Did Martians Land in Grovers Mill, NJ?
A monument in Grovers Mill, NJ.
From Howard Koch, a New York playwright hired by Mercury Theater to write Orson Welles' radio plays in 1938, in his memoir, “As Time Goes By”:
For my third assignment a novella was handed to me—H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds—with instructions from Orson to dramatize it in the form of news bulletins and first-person narration. Reading the story, which was set in England and written in a different narrative style, I realized I could use very little but the author's idea of a Martian invasion and his description of their appearance and their machines. In short, I was being asked to write an almost entirely original play in six days. I called [producer John] Houseman, pleading to have the assignment change to another subject. He talked to Orson and called back. The answer was a firm “no.” It was Orson's favorite project.
On Monday, my one day off, I made a quick trip up the Hudson Valley to visit my family. On the way back it occurred to me I needed a map to establish the location of the first Martian arrivals. I drove into a gas station and, since I was on route 9W where it goes through part of New Jersey, the attendant gave me a map of that state.
Back in New York starting to work, I spread out the map, closed my eyes and put down the pencil point. It happened to fall on Grovers Mill. I liked the sound; it had an authentic ring. Also it was near Princeton where I could logically bring in the observatory and the astronomer Prof. Pierrson, who became a leading character in the drama, played by Orson. Up to then hardly anyone had ever heard of this small hamlet surrounded by farmland; overnight the name of Grovers Mill was heard around the world.
There's a great description of Koch going to bed early on Sunday night, Oct. 30, 1938, waking up early, and, on his walk to the barbershop on 72nd street, hearing passersby talk of “invasion,” and “panic.” He assumed the worst: Some European country falling to Hitler's Germany. It was his barber who corrected him. How odd would that be? Your words causing mass hysteria?
Koch, gentlemanly and circumspect in his writing, keeps finding hysteria. “War of the Worlds” led to Hollywood, where he wrote, or helped write, “Casablanca,” “Sergeant York,” “The Letter,” and “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” among others. But he was also tapped to write “Mission to Moscow,” a whitewashing of the Soviet Union when they were our allies during World War II, and as a result he was fingered by the man who tapped him, Jack Warner, before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947. He was one of the original “Hollywood 19,” blacklisted, and fled to Europe, where he and his wife continued to be hounded by the U.S. government.
Lois Chiles by Arthur Laurents
“In New York, Ray [Stark, producer of ”The Way We Were“], bubbling with that infectious enthusiasm, worked overtime at the job he wanted: casting young actresses. He took me with him to a casting session at an excellent Chinese restaurant convenient to his apartment on East Fifty-seventh. The other guests were Oleg Cassini and his very pretty girl who had no interest in becoming an actress, and an even prettier girl who was an actress and extremely interested in being recognized as one.
”Her name was Lois Chiles. I liked her; it was a pleasure just to look at her. Although she gave the impression of being the well-spoken, fresh-faced graduate of a very good private school, she got all Ray's jokes which flew thick, fast and dirty. The part she wanted in The Way We Were was a good one. The requirements for the role were simple; understanding the requirements for getting the role was also simple. Lois understood.
“'In other words,' she said to Ray as though she were talking to a broker who had just explained the contents of her portfolio, 'I get the part if I fuck you.'
”'Right!' Ray winked and laughed as though he might not have meant it. No one was going to catch him. Lois got the part.“
[Several months later...]
”The first person I saw on the set, however, wasn't Barbra [Streisand]; it wasn't Sydney [Pollack] or [Robert] Redford; it wasn't even Ray. It was Lois Chiles. She raced over, threw her arms around me as though we knew each other, and burst into tears. Sydney was mean to her, Redford was glacial, Barbra invisible, Ray ignored her—could we please have dinner please? Of course. Here, take my handkerchief, call me at my hotel later to fix the time.
“When she called, she asked: 'Would you mind if I brought a friend? Would it be alright?' 'Sure. Who's your friend?' 'Bob Evans.' Jesus. 'You don't need me, Lois. You're doing fine.' The Great Gatsby, her next picture, was produced by Bob Evans. Hollywood was full of Chinese restaurants.”
And it all began in a Chinese restaurant.
Lena Horne by Arthur Laurents
“The core stars [at Gene Kelly's late 1940s parties] were Peter Lawford, Louis Jourdan, and Lena Horne. Lena was quiet, not wholly there; usually just sitting, sipping brandy near the piano where her husband, Lennie Hayton, doodled at the keyboard ... Although he was a musical director at Metro, his whole focus, professional and personal, was on Lena. He radically changed her career as a singer. It happened overnight, not in pictures—she was the wrong color for pictures—but at a downtown club called Slapsie Maxie on the night it opened. ...
”The voice deeper, the lyrics almost bitten and spat out, the eyes glittering, this was a new Lena. This Lena was angry sex. I gave the credit to Lennie because that was all I knew then ... [but] credit for turning the lady into a tiger doesn't matter; the angry sexuality was always there, uniquely hers, just growling while it waited to be let out of her cage.
“In the early Sixties, when we were so close, I asked her what was in her head when she came out on the elegant floor of the Waldorf in New York or the Fairmount in San Francisco. She bared her teeth in the smile those expensive audiences waited for. ”Fuck you,“ she said. ”That's what I think when I look at them. Fuck all of you.“