Friday, January 25, 2013

Mental Funda

The NRA is definitely onto something introducing mental health issues into the national debate about gun violence. But the nagging question remains, How can you tell if you are mentally ill and, therefore, should be stopped from owning a gun?
            No problem. I’ve developed a little test. Let’s see how you score.
            If, for example, you think it’s OK for 23 million Americans to live without health insurance, and if they die it’s not your problem, the fact that you do not feel the pain of others may be a warning sign of sociopathy. Perhaps keeping firearms around your home might present a danger to yourself and others.
            Or if you think that invading Iran is a dandy idea, not that you or anyone you know would go and fight yourself, of course, that may be a warning sign of a dissociative disorder. Better leave the assault weapons to our brave fighting men and women.
            If you think that Bill Clinton purposely killed David Koresh; that Hillary went into a Washington park and offed Vincent Foster; that the minute he was born in Kenya, Barack Obama knew Americans would one day want to elect a black man with a weird name and so he put his birth announcement in a newspaper in Hawaii; if you think that George W. Bush purposely blew up the World Trade Center; if you think that black helicopters are surrounding your home; if you think that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone; if you think the Mafia killed Kennedy; if you think that Lyndon Johnson killed Kennedy; if you think that I killed Kennedy, or if you think that the Newtown massacre of small children didn’t really happen and was a setup to take away your guns tomorrow… take a deep breath. Any of those beliefs might present themselves as paranoid delusions. Keep an unlocked assault rifle around the house at your own peril.
            If you are taking all of your money out of the bank because Obama ruined the economy, and you’re not convinced otherwise by a stock market’s doubling and corporate profits’ soaring through the roof, you may be suffering from a denial of reality, probably not a good fit for access to killing machines.
            If you thought it was OK that a guy running for President claimed to love America, but stowed a lot of his money offshore to avoid taxes that would help the country he wanted to run, that might indicate mild schizophrenia possibly disqualifying you for the right to bear arms.
            If you think that Acorn stole the 2012 election for Barack Obama, when Acorn hasn’t been in business for four years, you may be suffering from auditory hallucinations in response to AM radio signals; you might want to put off arming yourself.
            If the word “Benghazi” creeps into your conversations, that could indicate a generalized anxiety/panic disorder. Best not to leave the house with a concealed weapon.
            If you are convinced by strange voices coming from your television that the 63 million people who voted for Obama in 2012 are layabouts and do not want to take responsibility for their own lives…
            If you find Harry Reid fascinating…
            If you think that Al Gore really cares about the environment after he just pocketed $100 million from oil-producing Qatar…
            If you think women make up being raped…
            If you think zygotes are people and taxpayers can write them off as dependents upon conception…
            If you think it would be terrible if the Southern states seceded…
            If you rented Gran Torino and thought it was a documentary…
            And if Nancy Pelosi’s jerky smiles seem normal to you… well, any of these could classify you as borderline personality.
            So, please take the advice from the National Rifle Association, an organization that sincerely wants to be helpful in our national discussion about guns. If you see yourself in any of the above diagnoses, see a professional immediately. And for all our sakes, in the meantime, keep your mitts far away from guns. Heck, stay away from even horses and bayonets. 

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Texas Is TV Toast

Rick Perry sure blew his chances at the nomination this time around but, had the pundits and his campaign staff taken a look at the Nielsen ratings, they could have saved themselves a lot of money and bother. Because Perry ran touting his home state of Texas. And one thing is clear: If TV ratings are any indication of how America feels about Texas, he would have been better off soft-pedaling any mention of The Lone Star State.

Because Texas, in TV terms, is Nielsen-ratings poison.

Yup, pardner, we’re a long way from the Texas-centric heyday of early television when The Lone Ranger roamed under six flags for nearly eight years. And the Ranger wasn’t Lone way back then, either. Early TV was plum full of Texans.

Some of the series that ran long and tall were Laredo, The Rebel, Temple Houston, The Texan, Texas John Slaughter, The Rounders and Judge Roy Bean, although, truth be told, none of these shows was quite as memorable as The Alamo.

But that’s so yesterday: Except for Dallas and Chuck Norris’ pretending to be a Texas Ranger back in the 1980s (and a still very hip PBS music series set in Austin — a city that makes no claims to the rest of the state and vice-versa), the recent track record for Texas-American-TV is dismal.

The biggest example lately was Friday Night Lights, an NBC series that celebrated Texans’ infatuation with high school football. Critics huddled and fell all over each other praising it; viewers fled the stadium after the first kickoff.

And last season, especially, messed with Texas.

ABC, for example, tried to convince America that Texas high schoolers were interesting, with the show My Generation. It premiered on September 20, 2010 and got axed on October 1, two episodes later.

Also last year: Fox’s oddball cop series set in Houston, The Good Guys, featuring Bradley Whitford and Tom Hanks’ son. That got perp-walked after a short year.

And, talk about secession: The most humiliating Nielsen rejection of Texas was the case of Lone Star, a series that aired only once on Fox and got shelved immediately. Deep in the heart of Texas, that’s gotta sting.

So what’s the matter with Texas, as they say in Kansas? Why doesn’t America want to watch these Texans’ hootin’ and-hollerin,’ ropin’ and shootin,’ rootin’ and tootin’?

Maybe the answer lies in the only two hugely popular and successful series that are set in Texas, and, of course, they are cartoons.

King of the Hill may take a sympathetic view of middlebrow Texans, for instance, but the state seems more pathetic than sym in the adventures of the Hill family. The Hills live in a neighborhood of simpletons and the relatives are, shall we say, a might-prejudiced. It’s redeemed by the main character, Hank, a sweet guy who endures all of it, just as we abide our odd relations around the Thanksgiving table, the ones who back up their arguments with “evidence” off the Internet.

King is the creation of Mike Judge, who hails from a Dallas suburb and knows the downside as well as the charms of his home state. But it is Judge’s other series about Texas that may cause Governor Perry to want to hold his horses when it comes to braggin’.

Beavis and Butt-head, one of the most popular shows ever aired on MTV, not only had a wildly successful run from 1993 to 1997, it’s been revived and is back on the air today. The show features two snickering teenagers in Highland, Texas, who lack ambition, are poorly educated, have no clue when it comes to women, think violence is cool and have the moral compass of toads.

But wait. Mid-season promises TV watchers yet another series set in Texas — the upcoming (and highly touted) ABC nighttime soap, GCB, that showcases folks from Dallas. Could this be the Texas-image savior? Uh, probably not. GCB stands for “Good Christian Bitches.”

No, Governor Perry has a long row to hoe if he thinks the rest of the country wants to be like his home state. If Nielsen ratings are any indication of America’s opinion of the place and he has any chance of endin’ up in the Oval Office, he’d best be hopin’ the eyes of America won’t be upon Texas.

The Cheap Reporter is former deputy bureau chief of TV Guide and TV critic for Los Angeles Magazine.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Loretta Young in Palm Springs

Tribute to Loretta Young


She didn't want to be interviewed. No, indeed. "I don't have anything to say," Loretta Young told me on the phone that fall afternoon in 1995. "I don't have anything to promote and I just want to be left alone." She paused. "But," she added, polishing off the kindest and gentlest turndown we've ever experienced, "you are so sweet to ask."

Say this for us: We're persistent. For one thing, we're not used to being turned down. To us, being on the cover of Palm Springs Life is a rite of passage when celebrities move to the desert. People who wouldn't think of posing for the cover of anybody's magazine - we're thinking Frank Sinatra and Johnny Carson as examples - often ended up on ours. Undaunted, therefore, we sent Miss Young flowers, thanking her for her time and hoping she'd reconsider after she got settled in.

Bingo. Turns out that even though Loretta had nothing to promote, it just so happened that her son and his then-wife Linda did. Loretta had given the couple the rights to sell the videos of her famed TV series and were packaging it for sale. Happy confluence of interests, therefore, put Miss Young on our cover on December 1995 in a portrait done expressly for us by the famed Greg Gorman.

Granting us exclusive access to her shoeboxes filled with classic photos and hours of time with the tape recorder running, the following interview and story came to be. It would turn out to be her last press interview - Loretta Young refused every subsequent request, often sending them my way to break the bad news.

Our talks ranged all over the map from her career to her religious beliefs. That's what she found so astonishing when the article was printed, remarking several times about my willingness to let her ventilate about her religion. To me it was all part and parcel of her remarkable personality, soaring from moments of spirituality, then suddenly landing in more earth-bound matters. It revealed the ironies in the life of this durable star, a pampered creation of the Hollywood glamour machine who genuinely cared about people and their lot in life. "I'm ready to go at anytime," she used to brag. "I've made my peace with it all."

Miss Young passed away at age 87 on Saturday, August 12, 2000.

-Stewart Weiner

The Interview by Stewart Weiner

It was the Saturday edition of the New York Times crossword puzzle, the day that the editor really tortures us players with obscure clues. He probably thought he had us on 2-Down: Seven letters. "Young, of A Night to Remember."

Well, duh. The answer, of course, was Loretta Young, the chiseled-cheeked leading lady who appeared in nearly 100 movies made from 1927 to 1953. Loretta Young, the twirling-through-the-double-doors host of one of TV's most enduring dramatic anthology series. Loretta Young, the very embodiment of Hollywood elegance and flawless beauty.

Loretta Young, now of Palm Springs, California.

Sitting in her desert home, in her large circular living room decorated in comfy white leather, a visitor tells Miss Young of her newfound fame as a crossword puzzle clue. Does she even remember this film A Night to Remember? "Oh yes," she says in that deep, cultured voice. "That was a terrifically terrible movie. Really dumb."

That's the way Miss Loretta is, you see. Blunt. No-nonsense. So while one half expects that Miss Young will greet guests by swinging open the doors of her desert residence, draped head-to-toe in evening clothes, the actual reality is considerably more sensible and down-to-earth. The day Palm Springs Life visited, for example, Miss Young was dressed in a simple roomy caftan, her own creation.

Loretta Young has moved to the desert as Mrs. Jean Louis, for Loretta has married a fellow Hollywood legend, the remarkable Louis, known as dressmaker to the stars. ("Harry Cohn [the fabled tyrant of Columbia Pictures] thought more of Jean than he did of Rita Hayworth!," Loretta says, and no wonder - Louis did the clothes for Gilda along with most of Kim Novak's and Judy Holliday's movies, winning the Oscar for The Solid Gold Cadillac.)

Loretta and Jean, who originally met in Cohn's office, are longtime friends. They were married after Jean became a widower with the death of his beloved wife Maggie.

Though it's obvious they are quite devoted, Loretta kids that she and Jean were married as much to settle the confusion about her last name as any other reason. ("In the eyes of the Church," Loretta, a devout Roman Catholic, says, "I was still known as Mrs. Lewis because I was still married to Thomas Lewis [a Hollywood producer]. Now I'm Mrs. Loo-ee. It cuts down on the confusion with the servants."

Jean and Loretta have become big fans of the desert, relishing the privacy and nonchalance Palm Springs reserves for its famous residents. And famous indeed is Miss Young. Her listing in The Film Encyclopedia runs on for 73 lines and across two pages. Most bios recount her life thus: She was born Gretchen Michaela Young on January 6, 1913 in Salt Lake City and after her parents separated, moved with her family to Hollywood.

There, with some financial help from the local bishop, Mama Gladys Belzer, who eventually became the interior designer to such Hollywood notables as John Wayne and Frank Sinatra, opened a boardinghouse. That may leave the wrong impression, though, for apparently this was no ordinary rooming house. No, this one had two upstairs maids, a gardener and Lord only knows how much other help on hand. The stunning Gretchen and her two beautiful sisters, Polly Ann and Elizabeth, reared in the proper convent manner, were soon discovered by Hollywood; Gretchen had her name changed by First National Studio and the rest is film history.

She successfully moved from silents to the talkies, and, though often used merely for decoration, eventually blossomed into a first-rate actress, receiving Oscar® nominations for Come to the Stable and The Farmer's Daughter. She won in 1948 for the latter; then moved into TV, was a smash hit in the ratings, won three Emmys and then retired gracefully.

Longtime friends differentiate between Loretta Young, the glamorous movie star, and Gretchen Young, the gal from Salt Lake. So does Loretta. Recalls her dear friend Duny Cashion, "One night she said to me, 'Let's go out and I'll be Loretta.' She likes to put on that persona occasionally. Most of the time, though, she's just Gretchen."

As you can see by the following interview, it is this Gretchen who's moved to the desert.

The photographer told us that you wanted to do your own hair for the cover shoot.

I told Greg [Greg Gorman, the formidable photographer who shot the cover] ten times that I'd put on my own makeup and do my own hair. I always have. You see I had to. My first hairdresser in the movies when I was under contract, was an alcoholic. And I didn't want the studio to fire her; I felt sorry for her. So I learned to do my own hair.

I had this hairdresser for 11 years; she was a darling woman but she was an alcoholic and she'd come stoned to the studio every day. Fortunately I had a dressing room big enough that it had a couch and so she'd sleep it off, and then around 12 she'd start wandering around. I always made excuses for her but, of course, everybody knew what was going on. But I guess I looked all right and so they didn't care.

So I wanted to do my own hair for the cover of Palm Springs Life. And my own makeup. I mean, what are you going to do with my face? I mean, it's there. You can't change it any. Well, Greg went through such trouble to find this exact right makeup man and, really, it's not worth it. But, anyway...This poor young makeup man was in the most terrible spot. His name was Chris and finally, about two-thirds the way through, I said to him, "Chris, listen to me. You're gifted with patience; you're dealing so well with an impossible situation: An older woman who knows exactly, she thinks, what she wants. And, really, I don't know any more about it than you do. So just plough ahead, you're doing a wonderful job." And I think the boy did great.

George Hurrell did the last sitting of me [in 1977] and he worked very hard and so did I. But he needn't have bothered; when he sent it out to be retouched, they just ironed everything out. I mean, it's all right. But that's why I much prefer the photograph of me with the Rolls Royce.

What made you decide to move from Beverly Hills to Palm Springs?

We got here originally because my son and daughter-in-law, Christopher and Linda Lewis, have a house here.

For years, you know, I would spend a great deal of time with Jean when he and Maggie were married, and they had a place in Santa Barbara. Really, we were inseparable. I don't know how Maggie put up with my always hanging around her husband, but she did. Well, they had a beautiful home in Santa Barbara, and I would visit them all the time.

After Maggie died in 1989, Jean stayed on in Santa Barbara, and I would visit before we were married. But Santa Barbara is damp and it's cold, and his home, Bonnymeade, was only about a half block from the water and Jean wasn't happy there with all of the memories of Maggie everywhere.

So I said to him, "Let's go down to the desert and visit the kids." He's known them for years. We were supposed to stay a few days and ended up staying for five weeks. In that time Jean fell in love with the desert. Well, who wouldn't after Santa Barbara, where the sun doesn't shine very much? He kept saying, "Oh, it's so beautiful here," and one day I asked him if he'd like to move here and he said yes.

How did you decide where to buy a house?

We looked around The Old Movie Colony and found one. When I called my children, they came over. They fell in love with it, with the garden especially. But finally my daughter-in-law, the wise one of the family, mentioned that we ought to have it looked over before we buy it. Well, by the time this inspector got through with all of the changes that needed to be made, I had to tell him, "We don't want to build a house; we want to buy a house." It would have taken a good year to fix up. So we gave up and became discouraged for a few weeks.

How did you find this house then?

I found a real estate lady from the telephone book and she drove us all around and we looked at a lot of homes. We drove by this one and we liked it. Now, with most of the houses that we walked into, Jean had no expression. And he'd never talk about it. When we came in here, however, he smiled. So this is the house we bought.

What is your life like here?

We came here for the easy living that both of us look for now. Palm Springs moves at half the pace of Beverly Hills. Beverly Hills is just too fast for me anymore. The traffic alone...The signals are too short. Everything about it tires me. I get tired just living there. Of course Jean discovered all this ten years before I did. Before Maggie died, he kept saying, "If I never have to go to another big party again, I'll be happy."

Your drives change. If you've had a successful business life, you know that's not the answer. It helps and gives you comfort but it certainly is not where the well of happiness springs from. So then you move into another, more spiritual life, and if you're smart, you realize that Somebody Else is running the show and that Somebody is very, very smart and doesn't make mistakes.

Are you bored with the slower pace?

I was afraid that there might be a lack of interesting things to do down here. But I was wrong. You can find any kind of life you want in Palm Springs. We found the kind we like.

Many people move here from Hollywood and find pet charities. Are you planning any kind of activity like that?

I'm too tired for most of it. And I think it's because I've been there, done that, loved it.

We've seen photos of you doing charity work in Los Angeles. You were a tireless worker. We're betting you change your mind.

One of the wonderful things about being a woman is that it is my privilege to change my mind. I learned a long time ago from Bishop Fulton Sheen, never say never about anything. Except sin, of course, and even then you won't be able to keep your word because you're human and we're all sinners. But I've learned never to say never. And yes, there's nothing wrong with changing your attitude. That just means you're growing a little bit.

Let's talk about the mundane things. Where do you shop here in town?

I don't shop. I haven't shopped in years.

You don't buy groceries?

I don't. Dorian [the housekeeper] shops.

You don't even call up on the phone and order it for delivery?

I wouldn't even know what to ask for. I'm not a cook. My mother was a marvelous cook. Maggie was a marvelous cook. All my sisters are great cooks. But, I'm sorry, I don't even know where the kitchen is. When I was four years old, I was bragging that I was going to be a movie star. Cooking didn't have much to do with that.

Are you a gourmet?

I'm not at all touchy about what I eat. I'm not too crazy about heady meat, but if I do have a steak, I want it pink. I don't want it burned to a crisp. I love fish. I love Chinese food, Japanese food. I adore Moroccan food, Mexican food. In fact, there's isn't any food I don't like.

Do you and Jean eat out regularly?

Certainly. I've been to Le Vallauris; Paul [Bruggemans] is a dear friend of Jean's before he was even in the business. There's a place here, Riccio's, that people take us to. And there's a place Jean went to that he says is wonderful. English food. Now, normally I don't think of English food as being too good. But Lyons Jean liked. Kobe here is supposed to be good, too. If you sit at the bar.


I like all fish. Catholic people always say they don't like fish because we had to eat fish every Friday. That's ridiculous. You didn't have to eat fish.

How often do you eat out?

I prefer to eat at home and have people in.

Are you athletic? Play golf or tennis? Listen, I wouldn't walk across this room if you'd carry me.


Well, I'll tell you, I've never learned how. I've had swimming pools in my backyard since I was 15 and I've never used any of them.

You say you're a night owl, staying up late and sleeping late. What do you do at night?

I love to sew. That's my hobby. I work on four or five things at once. I make these caftans for all of my friends.

Do you watch TV?

We start watching and then give up on TV a great deal.

Do you read? As Vanity Fair would say, what's on your night stand?

I do not read novels. I'm sorry to say I don't read too many newspapers, either.

How come?

I was in the hospital one time and was very ill and when I came out of it, I complained to my doctor that I was so depressed. That's not like me. That's not my disposition, never has been. I was born easy and grew up easy.

The doctor asked me what I did in the morning. I told him I was all right but then I'd have breakfast and read the paper. He said, "Don't read newspapers. All you get is bad news. All of it is bad news." And do you know, I was 42 at the time, I'm 82 now, that was 40 years ago and I haven't read one since. I'll buy your magazine because I'm on the cover.


I remember the pictures of Dinah Shore on the covers of Palm Springs Life. I loved Dinah, I thought she was a darling woman. Big loss. She was warm and kind to everybody. I'll never understand why she felt she had to keep that serious a matter [Ms. Shore succumbed to cancer in 1994] to herself because there were so many people who could have given her comfort. I have a feeling that it was another part of her innate kindness; she didn't want to burden people with her problems.

Who are your buddies out here in the desert?

My husband is my best buddy. Who do we hang out with? We don't hang out. We hang out at home. We have company three or four nights a week.

One of the reasons why we like it here in Palm Springs is because we don't have to hang out with anybody. That entails a responsibility and an obligation. I have never been a group person, anyway. In school, what little school I went to, I was never with a clique. Same thing at the studios; I was never in a clique. If I found somebody who did their job well, I kept them, but it wasn't a clique. In the nine years of TV, we made only two personnel changes. I was fortunate enough to get all top people to begin with because TV was just coming in. Everybody including the cameramen had won Oscars; they were people who wanted to try a new medium.

You brought to TV a sense of movie-making.

Well, you see, I never knew anything different. They said at the beginning, "We'll shoot you with three cameras." I said that might be fun for Lucy and comedy, but I prefer to shoot with one. We'd rehearse for two days and shoot three days. One time they told me we'd have to have an audience. I said I wasn't a comedian. It didn't make sense for there to be an audience there.

One time NBC put in a laugh track without my knowledge. But mostly the network was very kind to us because I was the first Academy Award-winning actress to go into TV and they said OK to everything.

Didn't you run into some controversy toward the end of the show's run?

I always said I would discuss both taste and policy on any script. I mean I knew my taste was better than theirs because, as I told them, I saw Mary Martin on the air last Sunday and she was wearing a little bikini and I wouldn't do that. And what are your policies, I asked? No blood and gore, I understood that. The six years I was with NBC, they gave me a certain amount of money, I gave them a finished script and they were wonderful to work with.

Then, however, we had a terrible disagreement because they asked me not to make certain pictures about certain subjects dear to my heart.

What subjects?

They said they were getting all these letters: Get that religious nut off the air! There were organized cells, Communist letter-writing cells who could put 125 letters on anybody's desk in 24 hours.

I was used to it from pictures. The more you do, the more mail you get. I told NBC that I was just voted the most important female star on TV and so I got a lot more mail now. But I wasn't about to change my policy, I told them, "I'm going to do the stories I want to do." And they'd say, "Well the public wants this or that." And I always said, "If you knew what the public really wanted, you'd be billionaires, all of you."

So they did cancel me and within 24 hours I was picked up by another network and went on joyously for another two years.

Give us your impression of other great movie people of your era. Like Orson Welles.

Oh, I had such a crush on him. And one time I did a picture with him and every time he'd come over to talk to me, I'd just beam and smile from ear to ear. The only problem was that it would ruin my makeup. And finally I had to ask him to only talk to me from behind because I was not about to go through that four-hour makeup session twice in a day.

You worked with Henry Fonda in The Story of Alexander Graham Bell.

He was a good actor. Charming man.

You played a deaf person in that. Any special preparation?

Yes, I had about a week's association with a deaf woman and she stayed at the house, but that was all. I just watched her. That's all you can do, really. Maybe we missed too much. The woman I studied lip-read all the time. She also signed but we didn't use it in the picture.

I'll tell you in pictures like that they were much more concerned with the emotion rather than the technicalities.

Were there any roles you wanted that you didn't get?

Yes, two. Only two that I ever tested for. One was called Berkeley Square with Leslie Howard and the reason I wanted to be in that was that I had this terrible crush on Leslie Howard and wanted to work with him. Heather Angel got it instead and the picture was not very successful, not because of the performances but because it was a little ahead of its time. People were not that much into the spiritual world then. So when it came out I wasn't too upset.

But the other part I missed was Rebecca. I knew I was perfect for it and Alfred Hitchcock was the director and David Selznick and they were both dear friends and I agreed to test for the part. I remember reading one memo that David had sent where he wrote, "We can't deglamorize Loretta enough," and I didn't get the part, Joan Fontaine did. I was just sick, I couldn't believe it. I was also embarrassed. I didn't even call David.

Then I saw the final movie at Bette Davis' house. And Joan Fontaine was so perfect in the part and I got over it. Because she was it, they didn't have to do one thing. She had a quality about her. Same quality as in Jane Eyre, born in her, she just was it. I would not have been as good as she was.

What do you think of the films you were in?

I did more than 98 pictures and you're lucky to get 8 or 10 that are good. I loved doing Come to the Stable. I loved Rachel and the Stranger. I also loved doing a picture White Parade, about nurses. I loved doing Man's Castle with Spencer Tracy. I was madly in love with him, but before I knew he was married. It took two years to break it up.

What is it about making a movie together that makes everybody fall in love with each other?

Well, first of all, everybody puts his and her best foot forward. You only want them to see your best looks. You only want to let him see your best humor and your best condition and your best everything. And everybody treats you as if you're a king or a queen and it seems so normal, perfectly normal. The parts are written that way; you look longingly and she's in love. I don't know how these young people do these things today.

Do you go to movies today?

Not if I can help it.

What's the last movie?

In a movie theater? Dances With Wolves.

Did you like that?

Loved it. I thought it was wonderful. Another movie we saw the other night at home on video Jean and I really loved, stayed up until quarter of one to finish it: Legends of the Fall. The young man in that movie, Brad Pitt, is just marvelous and so is the girl [Julia Ormond]. The scene when he's in jail and she's already married, and they didn't have to say a word. They were wonderful.

Are there any actresses you see coming up today who remind you of yourself?

No. They're all better than I was. We had our favorites in our period, too. Bette Davis and Ingrid Bergman were the two best actresses. They were both so honest, full of integrity, both of them. Both of them so vulnerable.

I don't I think you'll ever see a better performance on film than Bette Davis in The Little Foxes or Now, Voyager. Bette really really really was talented. Had the energy of a bull. And there wasn't a mean bone in her body.

Same with Ingrid.

Were you close with Miss Bergman?

We had met at parties but Ingrid and I never got a chance to see each other. We were so busy being Ingrid Bergman and Loretta Young that we didn't get a chance to visit with each other. But one day while Jean and Maggie and I were at her house outside of Paris, she said to me, "I want to ask you something, and it's personal." I said. "So?"

We were in the garden, just the two of us. And she said, "Do you really believe that there is anything after this life?" And I said, "Oh, I'll say. That's why to me every single solitary moment is so important. What I do here is going to decide whether I go to heaven or hell. And when I was 16 I decided I was not going to go to hell. And you can decide that. You may boo-boo 10 times a day. That's why we have confession. As long as you're sincere and trying to break the habits." Well we had a heartfelt discussion and I said I was preparing for the afterlife every day.

What did she say to that?

She said, "That's interesting because I don't believe in the hereafter and that's why every moment of the day is so important to me. I want to make them count." Now we both came up with the same procedure but with a different end.

I felt that she probably knew then that she had cancer but just wasn't admitting it. Because all of the time I knew her before she had never discussed the hereafter. She did say to me that she thought it was more immoral to continue to live with a man she was no longer in love with than it was to have a child with a man out of wedlock. That's what she believed. Therefore for her it was right.

She seemed to downplay her Hollywood glamour.

One day she said, "I saw you at Bergdorf Goodman and you had the whole place in an uproar. When I walk in there nobody pays one bit of attention to me."

I said, "Well first of all, Ingrid, you don't dress up like a movie star. You haven't got the full-length sable fur coat on and the sable hat to match and you don't walk in and you don't Hello everybody. You slip in the back door with a little old trench coat on and you don't raise your voice.

"If you want the movie star attention, you have to act like a movie star." About two weeks later she called me on the phone and said, "Well today I made it. They knew who I was today," and she always chose Bergdorf Goodman because they were snooty in there, the salespeople were kind of snooty.

Who are your favorite actresses today?

My favorite actresses now are Meryl Streep and Barbra Streisand. I think Barbra is the biggest all-around talent because her voice, her attitude, her acting and she's been tested.

A lot of the other young ones I can't tell apart. All the blondes I can't tell apart.

Any interest in being in a movie or TV show today?

If a great script came along. I did a great TV show in 1986, Christmas Eve.

Speaking of that, do you have a Christmas message for our readers?

Yes I do have a real message and it is simply that Christmas is Christ's birthday. That's what it means to me. And I can't think of it any other way.

I love it because of that. I love Christ's birthday.

Friday, November 5, 2010

From the Front Lines

Ten of us are sitting on the floor in the former cathedral of Hope Lutheran Church in Palm Desert, surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of large paper ballots, strewn everywhere. We’ve emptied our blue ballot boxes and we’re stacking the voted ballots in groups of 10.

Also on the floor are stacks of vote-by-mail ballots that people brought with them to the polls. There are also piles of “provisional” ballots, cast by those who either didn’t match our records or were voting out-of-precinct.

And it’s a mess.

The polls have finally closed after a grueling 13 hours of greeting voters, registering their attendance, verifying their information, instructing them on the vagaries of a four-page ballot filled with Propositions (written with the clarity of electronics’ owners’ manuals translated from the Korean) … and we are exhausted.

Two precincts are housed in this hall and neither of us is coming up with the right figures for the day. We’re a couple of votes off, first six, then three. Perhaps, we say to each other, some of the voters put their ballots in the wrong blue boxes, although, during the day I made myself quite annoying reminding voters that if they registered in the precinct to the left they had to put their ballots in the blue box on the left and vice-versa. I did this because ballots cast in the wrong box are not counted and we are charged with making sure that every vote counts. (At one point, apparently angry at the whole world, one voter shushed me when I yelled these instructions, raising my voice to be heard in this high-vaunted space. Thanks for that, by the way.)

We are quite the crew, all of us. Most of us are either retired or semi-retired and, youth will be served, we are being assisted ably by students from nearby Palm Desert High School and, under court order, also by a wise Latina who is there to assist any Spanish-speaking voters.


The day starts at 5:30 a.m. with a stop at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf where manager Cody and the morning crew prepared a coffee caddy for me to take to the polls, along with delicious pastries. (Polls run on sugar.)

At six, the crews arrive at the church and, uh-oh, we discover that the precinct inspector for 42045 has taken quite ill and will not be coming. Since I’ve been doing this for nearly a decade, election after election, I think we can manage but it is Diversion Unnecessary. (The ill precinct inspector landed in the emergency room.) We plow ahead anyway, waiting for a representative from the Board of Elections, our “Range Inspector,” a clinical psychologist and former cop with the patience of Job, to arrive and fill in, helping to set up the other precinct.

We spend the next hour getting ready, putting out the signs, making sure the “booths” (actually, suitcases) are ready, arranging our tables so that voters won’t be confused when they walk in and, with masking tape, sticking the various legal documents on surfaces where they can be read. We have one electronic voting machine but we have been discouraged, in a two-and-a-half-hour training program a week prior to the election, not to offer this as an alternative to the huge paper ballots. (Voting by machine was decertified when California saw what was happening around the country with computer-hacking and possible political shenanigans.)

At 7 a.m., we are ready for the first voter and so it goes, hour after hour for the next 13, as a steady stream of voters is processed through the system. As Precinct Inspector, I greet each voter, direct him or her to the proper line (the precincts follow a fairly predictable geographical pattern, based on their residences), then loosely supervise the processing of the voters (my crew is aces, a well-oiled machine), answering the odd questions (I live in Indio, can I still vote here? My ballot never came in the mail, what do I do?) plying the crew with caffeine and the protein and vitamins derived from pizza prepared and delivered by Papa Dan (quite tasty).

And, finally!, it is 8 p.m. And we are exhausted. But now comes the most important part of the election — collating the ballots, creating a ballot statement that shows the results and driving these results to the Palm Desert Library where a crew picks up the results and sends them to Riverside for final tabulation. And we are a couple of votes off in the tally. No matter how we try to reconcile the figures, the math is off by a little but it's a little like being almost pregnant. Clearly, one or two of these votes will not be counted here. Our only hope is that somewhere down the line, it will all fit together, that whatever tiny mistake we made, by either miscounting or by votes inadvertently cast in the wrong ballot box or simple mathematical error, it will all come out right.

I think of the folks in walkers who came to the polls; the aged couple in the car to whom I brought out the ballots to make sure they voted, the laborers who had to get to work but insisted on voting first, and the unfortunate voters who played by the rules but whose names somehow didn’t make it onto the rolls and who voted “provisionally,” meaning that their voices will be heard but not tonight… and I wonder.

Why are the county supervisors being so hard on the Election officials? Why this massive hurry to get the results? What would it hurt to delay announcing anything for a couple of days so there is time to reconcile the results?

I have never met the director who is under fire, the one who takes the heat every election season. I have no stake in any of the politics of this.

But, hey, isn’t there a better way to do this?

On the way to delivering the ballots to the Library pick-up area, I chat with another officer. We seem to hit upon an idea.

Why not hire two teams to work on Election Day? There’s the crew that handles the polling-place setup, the 13-hour day of voting, the long hours of making sure everyone who wants to, gets to vote.

And then at 8 p.m., they are sent home, replaced by a fresh crew of workers who, unfazed by a day of detail-oriented trivia and bushy-tailed enough to bring energy to the process, count the ballots and tabulate the results. Keep the Precinct Inspector on hand for that but send the rest of the crew home, mission accomplished.

A bit more expensive, perhaps. But do the math: How much was spent this time on the round-the-clock crews counting the mail-in ballots?

I probably don’t have a vote on trying this, of course. I’m just a cog in the machine. But maybe it will count.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Mystery of To Kill a Mockingbird

Its being the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, teachers all over the country, nay, the world, will be assigning this classic piece of literature to their classes. And, no doubt, cities around the country, in one of those gimmicks to get the slackers to read, will probably hold “To Kill A Mockingbird Days.”

So look for even more honors for its 82-year-old author, Harper Lee, the creator of the Finches — Atticus, Scout and Jem, not to mention the Underwood typist behind such immortal characters as Arthur “Boo” Radley, neighbor Dill Harris, accused rapist Tom Robinson and a host of other Southern archetypes vividly brought to life in this much-loved novel, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961, named “Novel of the Century” in a 1999 poll taken by Library Journal, and re-printed an astounding 40 million times, spending 80 weeks on the Best-Sellers List.

The book is not without controversy, however. The book entered the American lexicon at a very agitated time. I know this sounds silly in our enlightened age, but back then white people were actually frightened and angry about blacks’ and other minorities’ gaining political power and, get this, it was so antediluvian that some reactionary politicians thought about formulating a strategy to make political hay out of these resentments. Heck, some governors wanted to celebrate Confederate History without their mentioning slavery and angry folks carried firearms into town-hall meetings, declaring the 14th amendment to the Constitution unconstitutional. It was surely a different world back then; our American society has advanced so much, it’s hard for us to relate now to that primitive time.

But there’s another controversy about To Kill A Mockingbird which doesn’t get much press but still lingers to this day, namely: Who wrote the book? Are we sure it was Nelle Harper Lee? (And yes, Nelle is the correct spelling, according to her unauthorized biographer Charles J. Shields. Or as he quotes Ms. Lee secondhand, “It’s Ellen spelled backwards.”)

I raise this heretical question of Mockingbird’s true authorship because of an experience I had more than two decades ago in Branchville, South Carolina.

First, a little back story.

For two years in the early 1980s, I worked with a woman named Marie Rudisill an antique dealer from Branchville, helping her sort out and put into words her memories of the childhood and adult life she spent with one Truman Strekfus Persons Capote. She was Truman’s cousin (I think that was the relationship, the bloodlines get a little confusing, not to mention close) and Marie “Tiny” Rudisill lived with Truman, along with his other cousins, Jennie, Callie, Bud and Sook, in a large rambling home in Monroeville, Alabama, where Truman, from ages six to nine, was dumped by his parents, who Marie said, were quite fond of the high life. (Sook, who passed away years earlier, is the inspiration for the kitchen-guide in Truman’s wonderful short story, “A Christmas Memory.”)

I had met Marie years earlier when I was the editor of the magazine Writer’s Digest. One day Marie contacted our offices in Cincinnati, asking if we were interested in her memoir about growing up with Truman.

Duh. We were ever! So, in the spring of 1974, we published Marie’s evocative memoir. On the cover I put a laddie-picture of Truman in white shorts with the caption “Marie Rudisill’s nephew.” That was all. No mention of Truman. (Boy, did the publisher, Richard Rosenthal, hate that. “I was going for understatement,” I said in my defense. “You ended up with no statement!” he said in response.)

Even without the hypy cover lines, though, the magazine’s cover and Marie’s story earned a mention in Newsweek, although the snarky editors there couldn’t resist including the embarrassing fact that we paid a measly $300 for the memoir, troubling, considering I was trying to turn Writer’s Digest into a publication where writers could bitch about low freelance fees.

I called Marie’s story “Other Voices, The Same Rooms,” a play on the title of Truman’s remarkable book, "Other Voices, Other Rooms," about growing up in the South. And the memoir was filled with some very good prose: “The sidewalks [of Monroeville, Alabama] were paved but the streets were dirt, Alabama clay, which produced red mushy mire with the winter rains and a mass of restless dust in the hot summer,” for example. “Restless dust,” a nice touch, There were other surprising aspects of the memoir, and some a little freaky. “Surrounding the landscape, a tall fence made of animal bones drew our boundary line. Jennie had them hauled from an animal graveyard near Claiborne and had supervised the selection and laying of each bone. ‘No,’ she would say, ‘the backbone can’t be next to the foot, that ain’t right.’” A yard full of human bones? This was Southern naturalism at either its best or its nadir. In any case, it was a pleasure to publish it.

Not that this was Capote-strength prose, mind you. Few writers, for my money, have ever approached Truman’s early work. One of my favorite short stories is “The Grass Harp,” a character study of a young boy sent to live with relatives after his mother’s death, a situation that puts one in the mind of Truman’s own experience — to butcher a Southern expression. In this story, the owner of the house, Verena, a hard-nosed businesswoman (she owns everything in town and is held in low esteem by everyone who owes her money), lives with her withdrawn, child-like sister Dolly. (Playing the part of Sook? A character so tenderly and deftly drawn had to come from somewhere.)

Hell, let Truman tell it: “[After my mother’s death], that afternoon Dolly’s friend, Catherine Creek, came over [to the house] and packed my clothes and Papa drove me to the impressive shadowy house on Talbo Lane. As I was getting out of the car, he tried to hug me but I was scared of him and wriggled out of his arms. I’m sorry now that we did not hug each other. Because a few days later, on his way up to Mobile his car skidded and fell fifty feet into the Gulf. When I saw him again, there were silver dollars weighting down his eyes.”

In this great tale, Dolly invents a “dropsy medicine” with the help of Catherine (who could be Indian but no one is quite sure), and Verena along with a doctor from Chicago try to wrest the formula from Dolly, who will have none of this crass mercantilism. Together the boy, Dolly and Catherine escape the hard-nosed Verena and they run away to live in a China tree. OK, it’s a tree house but… The title comes from one of Truman’s great metaphors: “Below the hill grows a field of high Indian grass that changes color with the seasons: go to see it in the fall, late September, when it has gone red as sunset, when scarlet shadows, like firelight breeze over it and the autumn winds strum on its dry leaves, sighing human music, a harp of voices.”

One cannot begin a Capote story without plunging onward toward the end, his captivating style and his memorable phrasing tugging the reader along dusty streets into big empty mansions and up into China trees.

Critics like Alfred Kazin weren’t all that impressed with Truman’s later works like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” but you will search high and low to find anyone dissing Early Capote. He is smack dab in the middle of great Southern Lit, true descendant of Mississippi’s Faulkner and Catawba’s Thomas Wolfe, a contemporary of Shelby Foote, Erskine Caldwell and Fannie Flagg and younger brother to New York Times’ crossword puzzle fave Zora Neale Hurston. That amalgamation of human interaction with nature that obtains in all of our best regional Southern literature came alive in Truman’s young hands (he wrote “Other Voices” at the tender age of 24).

So, yes, I’m a fan.

So, needless to say, when Marie asked me to help her with her memoirs of Truman’s life in Alabama, I was thrilled to play even this small part.

As it turns out, Marie had the scoop on all of the family’s unusual goings-on; events that I was privy to while helping her collect her thoughts for her pending autobiography. And she wasn’t shy about sharing what she knew.

Her stories about Truman, his idiosyncrasies (for example, he hated cut glass), his childhood prodigy-ness (he always had a photographic memory, Marie recalled, although I think the correct term is eidetic), his loves and his friendships made for amazing copy, copy that, eventually, got so juicy that I was sure the best parts would be excised by William Morrow & Co., the book’s publisher. (In any case, I was replaced on the project after a year, furtively and unexplainably.)

Truth be told, I don’t think Morrow had any clue as to what Marie was going to reveal in her book. They probably should have. I think the publisher was envisioning some sort of sweet nostalgic look back at the great author’s life. But if you think Marie was interested in sweet nostalgia, well, you didn’t know her.

One of the bombs she dropped while we were working together concerned Truman’s next door neighbor in Monroeville, Nelle Harper Lee. Nelle and Truman were BFFs all their lives. In my mind I pictured the two of them on hot muggy Alabama summer days, swinging on a tire hanging from a mossy tree. (The truth was probably a lot more prosaic but I do love me my Southern writers and all their clich├ęs.)

Marie swore up and down until the day she died that Truman wrote Mockingbird as a gift to Nelle. As evidence she brought forth the fact that Lee never wrote another thing in her life after Truman left her for the thrills of the Big Apple. (Lee’s work with Truman, researching In Cold Blood, didn’t count, apparently.) And in Charles Shields' biography, he notes that Truman and Nelle "Ha-puh" Lee often wrote stories together on an old Underwood typewriter.

But sometimes Marie could confuse real life with stories from Truman’s books. She once told me that Truman’s father was an itinerant con man who would travel around the South with an Egyptian man scamming the local populace by “burying” the Egyptian and having people bet on whether or not the guy would survive. I’m told that these characters are featured in one of Truman’s short stories. Was it based on real life? Who could tell? I was merely typing as fast as I could. So whether or not Truman wrote To Kill A Mockingbird is either an elaborate story Marie concocted or whether it contains a kernel of truth is unknown. Maybe he critiqued her chapters, maybe he added details, or maybe he had absolutely nothing to do with it. With Marie’s death more than a decade ago, there is no way to check back with her.

Eventually Marie’s book came out and all that was left of my part in it was the first chapter that, word for word, was printed as I wrote it. Many friends urged me to take action but I never liked lawyers and by the time the critics got through trashing the book, I was pretty sure I didn't want to be identified with it, anyway. “Mean-spirited score-settling” was the way the book was described in USA Today.

So the question begs an answer: Did Truman write To Kill a Mockingbird? Or did just growing up around Truman make Nelle a gifted authoress? (Marie’s memoir contained some beautiful phrases; maybe it’s a Southern osmosis-thing, something in the water.)

I suspect that once you have written a classic book like To Kill a Mockingbird, the temptation is to avoid a sophomore jinx, one theory behind J.D. Salinger’s reluctance to put his work before the public again after his stunning first successes. Witnessing how the critics devoured Truman after the bombshell status of In Cold Blood — lesser lights shining rudely on his reputation, cowards sniping at him from safe perches, wielding viciously poisonous pens — maybe Nelle decided that her heart wasn’t in a life of letters.

Or, and wouldn’t this be wonderful? perhaps if and when Nelle passes, we’ll find trunks full of manuscripts, hidden away from public view. Like Emily Dickinson! Except this time, the story moves south from New England, back to a rural Alabama where “in rainy weather, the streets turned to red slop and the courthouse sagged in the square, where ladies bathed before noon and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.” (Lee). Or the South “where when leaving town you take the church road and pass a glaring hill of bone white slabs and brown burnt flowers.” (Capote.)

In any case, I’m not going to challenge Nelle Harper Lee. For as Capote noted in Shields' biography of her, she was a “sawed-off tomboy with an all-hell-let-loose wrestling technique.” And even at 82, I think she could take me.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

How Hef Saved the Hollywood Sign

Back in the mid-70s, when I was senior editor at Oui Magazine (which Hugh Hefner co-owned with Hachette's Daniel Filipacchi), we ran a pictorial that we shot at the Hollywood sign with girls' being "romanced" by men dressed as Los Angeles policemen. It was pretty racy and I think there were some shots featuring a baton.
Understand that, compared with what you can see today, this was all pretty tame. But, legend has it, the outcry was so loud that Hefner had to agree to donate money to help restore the Hollywood sign to its original glory to get the city officials off his back. (He had just steered his ship into Los Angeles and was trying to be a good neighbor — not that we editors down below in the galley cared one whit.)
I see now that nearly 30 years later, he's made the final down payment on restoring the sign. And all because we wiseacres at Playboy Enterprises had a dumb idea to mix Hollywood history with modern-day soft porn.
You're welcome.