Thursday, September 22, 2016

Edward Albee and Other Writers I Have Known

Edward Albee in 1994, the year we first met.
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara

“YES, Martha, can I get you something?”

“Uh, well, sure. You can light my cigarette, if you’re of a mind to.”

“No. There are limits. I mean, a man can put up with only so much before he descends a rung or two down the old evolutionary ladder ... Now, I will hold your hand when it’s dark and you are afraid of the boogeyman and I will tote your gin bottles out after midnight so no one can see. But I will not light your cigarette, and that, as they say, is that.”

So says Richard Burton, cutting Elizabeth Taylor to the quick in the 1966 movie version of Edward Albee’s searing play about marital warfare, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
EDWARD ALBEE’s death at age 88, got me to thinking about the playwright, whom I admired greatly — loved even. His passing — the end of a literary epoch — also put me in mind of two other great writers, now long gone, whom I also knew well. More on them, later.

I met Edward Albee rather late in the game, in 1994. A friend of mine, singer/actress Anne Francine was appearing in Albee’s Pulitzer-Prize winning off-Broadway play “Three Tall Women.” She introduced us. (Francine was quite a character. One of the big numbers in her cabaret act was “I Couldn’t Be Annoyed” which Marlene Dietrich sang in “Blonde Venus.” Anne was always worried that somebody else would incorporate the little known ditty into their own act!)
Edward Albee and Marian Seldes as "B" after her performance in "Three Tall Women" in 1994.
I was interested in Albee — who wouldn’t be? But somewhat in awe and cautious at first. After all, he had written “Virginia Woolf” — would I encounter George or Martha upon meeting him? Luckily, not. That said he wasn’t easy to know. He had a sardonic manner, and didn’t suffer fools gladly. (His childhood — abandoned by his parents, adopted at ten months — was painful. He would describe his youth as “unnourished.”) But if you employed your own good sense of humor and were on “his side” he was appreciative.

Despite his three Pulitzers, Albee was never beloved by critics, and like almost everybody, took public failure to heart — particularly something as public as being the “script doctor” for the Broadway musical adaptation of Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” This closed before it officially opened.
Edward was a private person, openly gay, in that he was matter of fact about it, but resisted being labeled a “gay writer.” Edward had a long relationship with the sculptor Jonathan Thomas, who died in 2005.

When the late Governor of Texas, Ann Richards, took me to the opening of his “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia,” she said “I don’t understand the title.” Later, as the plot unfolded — a married, middle-aged man literally falls in love with a goat — Ann said dryly: “Oh, there are a lot of guys in Texas who understand this thing!” Albee laughed a lot when we told him this, later.
The last time I saw Edward Albee I was visiting friends in Maine, and they took me to see him being saluted at Bowdoin College. I went up to greet him after. He clasped me to his chest and said, “Thank God, Liz, for someone I know! What are you doing in Maine? Did you come just to see me?”

I crossed my fingers behind my back and said, “Absolutely!” I was happy to tell that little fib, as it seemed to please him so much.
I MENTIONED those other two writers I knew.

One was Tennessee Williams. I idolized him. We met through the inveterate introducer, Truman Capote.

Looking back, I think both Tennessee and Truman got a kick from taking me out in the '60s and '70s, wondering perhaps, how far this raw Texas girl would go? Also, as I moved up, they looked to see how I’d handle them, separately and together; their fascinating treasure troves of memory and gossip about everybody who was anybody who mattered!
Tennessee and Truman.
Truman used me for his own ends. But, as I knew that was how he dealt with everyone, I found it very amusing. I realized it was vital to separate the chaff from the wheat, the grains of salt from the entire shaker, when we spoke — or when he spoke. I was never outrageously indiscreet in his presence. (Not that he needed that. He could, and often did, simply make it up.)
But Tennessee and I became great and real friends. I had such admiration for him, and great sympathy for his agonies. Despite his fantastic fame and accomplishments — “The Glass Menagerie” ... ”Cat On a Hot Tin Roof” ... ”A Streetcar Named Desire” ... ”Sweet Bird of Youth” ... ”Suddenly Last Summer” he was tortured by his failures, some of which were dazzling, misunderstood in their time (“Camino Real,” “Orpheus Descending”)

He got up and worked — wrote — every single day. No matter what debauch the night before might have been. If he felt his best years were behind him, he never stopped trying to recapture what he felt he’d lost. He was only 71 at the time of his death in 1983. Surely, another great work might have happened.
Tennessee Williams with his Royal KMM Typewriter "Williams."
As for Truman, he really only wanted fame and acceptance by the Upper Crust. He got that, and then he even achieved serious journalistic success with the monumental “In Cold Blood.” He never wrote anything important again, destroyed himself with the very people whom he had coveted. He died with a ruined reputation, a parody of the charming, eccentric young man who’d conquered the literary and social world.
Truman and Babe.
I think of him, often, too. But unlike Tennessee, despite the playwright’s fabled excesses, Truman was beyond revival.

Truman was like a brilliant, naughty, over-privileged child who just couldn’t accept his punishment. He wouldn’t stand in the corner and apologize. And even if his banishment from Manhattan’s “elite” was permanent, so what? There was more in life than telling Babe Paley how fabulous she was. Or at least there should have been.

When he was good, he was very good. But when he was bad, he was, well — Truman!
DIVORCE is an unhappy thing, especially when children are involved. In the case of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, there are six children! So, I don’t want to come off as inordinately or inappropriately amused here. It’s unfortunate. I wish everybody well.

That said (you knew it was coming!) I am looking to Angie and Brad as sort of patriots. Really. Their news — superficial celebrity gossip to the masses — has come along at just the right time. It distracts us a bit from the ongoing grim presidential campaigns, from national and international upheavals.
The famous couple could have waited fortysomething days until the election was over. Or even until after the first debate, happening Monday. But they correctly sensed they we needed diversion right this second. In our time of need, they came through.

Oh, and if you two decide to reconcile, do it on November 7th. We’ll all be a bit more light-hearted as we head out to the voting booths the next day.

Contact Liz here.