Friday, December 8, 2017

Grand Ladies and Grandstanding Men

“Honey, I am a singer."
Finally Friday!! Della Reese ... Lena Horne ... Lopez and Rodriquez ... Margaret Trudeau ... John McCain ... Al Franken, and what NOT to do when wearing Blackglama fur!
by Denis Ferrara

“IT WERE not best that we all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horse races,” said Mark Twain.
NEWS of the death of Della Reese on November 14th, reminded me of my one meeting with that grand lady, some years ago.

I forget now why I was interviewing Della. It might have been related to a TV appearance.  But I seem to also recall the re-release of some of her great recordings. Maybe that was it.  In any case, I was excited. 

Not only was I an admirer of Ms. Reese’s thrilling voice — whether in pop, jazz or gospel — I was, believe it or not, a big “Touched By an Angel” fan. While I have barely a scintilla of religiosity, I am nevertheless, a sap for well-done spiritual uplift. And the first four or five seasons of that series, never failed to provoke misty eyes and sometimes more.  (Like most series, it should have ended sooner, but while it was good, it was very good indeed.) After the “Touched” end credits rolled, I invariably told myself I’d work harder at being a better person.  Yeah, I know — but at least I thought about it.

My excitement however was dampened by warnings from “friends” and “people” and even somebody who had once repped Miss Reese.  “Prepare yourself!  She’s tough.  She’s scary. You won’t get much. You’ll be sorry.”  Wow!   I’d never had a problem with anyone I’d ever sat down with — unless you count Elizabeth Taylor’s regal indifference.  So, as I approached Miss Reese and her husband, Franklin Lett, sitting in the brightly lit restaurant of a mid-town hotel, I was sweating.
Within seconds, I was cool as a cucumber.  Della Reese couldn’t have been more welcoming, amusing and intelligent.  She was as warm — and comfortingly strong — as her character, Tess, on “Touched By an Angel.”  We spoke of many things, including how it was back in the day for African American entertainers, working nightclubs across the South and in Las Vegas. Unable to stay at the very venue where you were performing, going through the kitchen, cooped up in some run-down spot an hour’s drive away.  The memories, the pain, were still palpable in Reese’s face and voice.  There are some things you never forget — and shouldn’t forget. 

At one point, recalling the many stars who endured these humiliations, she mentioned Lena Horne.  Relaxed now, with the very friendly Della, I mentioned what a fan I was of Lena.  Della said: “Oh, yes, she was wonderful.  Of course, with Lena, it was all about her look, her beauty.  She wasn’t much of a singer; she was more of ‘song stylist.’”

Wisdom should have told me to let it go.  But wisdom has never been my strong suit.  I had to object, politely. “Really, a ‘song stylist?’  That’s such a limited description. I think she was so much more than that.  She had a powerful voice.  Have you ever heard the live album from her Broadway show, ‘The Lady and Her Music?”

Miss Reese took a sip of tea, glanced at her husband, and then back to me.  “Honey, I am a singer. Lena was a fabulous woman, but she never could have sung what I did.  She had style. I didn’t have style. I had a voice. Okay?”

Okay, Miss Della Reese! We moved on, and the rest of the interview was smooth as silk.   I loved meeting her, despite our difference of opinion, which I did not print.
A few months ago, writing about Lena Horne, I mentioned that I’d once sat with a famous singer who hadn’t thought much of Horne’s gifts.  This resulted in weeks of emails, and at least 50 candidates suggested as the singer who “dissed” Lena. Everybody from Barbra Streisand to Patti LuPone to Madonna to Tammy Wynette! 

Well, now you know.  It was Della, and it wasn’t a diss.  It was just — as Mark Twain said — what makes a horse race. 

I’m sure right now the divine ladies, Della and Lena, are up there in that big recording studio in the sky having a much better time than we are, down here! 
RECOMMENDED:  I won’t tell you to forget Vanity Fair’s puff piece on Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez this month, written in mouth-watering style by Bethany McLean. It’s terrific for what it is — the relentlessly publicized pair are in love, they are very attractive,  and all their current professional endeavors are duly cataloged. We’ve read it a million times — Brad and Jennifer, Brad and Angie, George and Amal, William and Kate, Tom and Nicole, Tom and Katie (and Suri!), on and on.

These stories exist for a reason — we want to believe in romance among the ridiculously rich and privileged. And we like to look at pretty pictures. Miss Lopez’s famously callipygous backside, encased in Ralph Lauren, almost overshadows the Donald Trump cover lines that surround it.

But the heart of the issue, for me, is Michael Callahan’s touching profile on the former first lady of Canada (and world tabloid headlines) Margaret Trudeau. In 1971 twenty-two-year-old Margaret married the much older prime minister Pierre Trudeau.  To say she had some issues adjusting would be a vast understatement.  

Now — after the fire and brimstone of her young, and not-so-young, adulthood, after the trauma of losing a child and kind of losing her mind — she battles bi-polar disorder — Margaret has come out on the other side.  No longer an embarrassment, she is now beloved in Canada, mother to that country’s current charismatic prime minister Justin Trudeau; she has morphed into an inspirational figure.  As writer Callahan sums up:  “It’s not easy to reinvent yourself as a serious person with a serious message after spending the best years of your life making the worst possible decisions.  And yet that is precisely what Margaret Trudeau has managed to pull off, armed with perspective and grit and humor and the unyielding belief  that, somehow, tomorrow has the potential to be better than today.” 

Maybe it’s my own precarious sense of gloom and doom these days, but Trudeau’s story lifted me up.  I needed that.
Margaret Trudeau, photographed in the Prime Minister's Suite at the Fairmont Royal York, in Toronto.
Photograph by Norman Jean Roy.
“I HAVE had the most fortunate life of anybody you will ever talk to, and I have nothing but gratitude, gratitude and joy.  So I spend my time in gratitude and work as hard as I can to get done what I can get done, while I can.”

That’s Sen. John McCain, talking to GQ’s Jason Zengerle.  As the year plummets to an end, I look back on all that has been said and done by so many politicians and  pundits on both sides of the aisle.  McCain is one of the few I’d be willing to — as the saying went a few elections back — sit down and have a beer with.  And I hate beer.  I have forgiven McCain his greatest error — Sarah Palin. After all, it cost him a lot. 
Republicans have behaved shamelessly — although in their triumph, who can blame them?  

Democrats in 2017 have revealed themselves — again — as losers whose defeat last year was of their own making.  Currently they are carrying on exactly as they did leading up to the election of our 45th president.  They offer nothing constructive.  Just hating the one-time real-estate man is not enough. And Russia, I regret to say, is not enough either.  It just isn’t. But maybe after the president’s second term, somebody in the Democratic Party will have bought, borrowed or stolen a clue.  (They think running Al Franken out of the senate — without an ethics investigation, tried and found guilty by the media — somehow holds them to a higher moral ground. As if anything can stop Roy Moore from being elected in Alabama.)

I was going to praise McCain as having shown rare dignity in a horribly undignified year.  I do, and now I add Al Franken, who has allowed himself to be sacrificed, pointlessly, but went out with a lot of class on the floor of the senate. 
MAIL:  Not surprisingly, I received a lot of positive response by suggesting that Liza Minnelli is ripe and ready for a Kennedy Center Honor.  Marilyn Norris, applauding this, added “don’t forget Johnny Mathis!” and went on to remind me of his great — and still ongoing! — career. So, yes — Kennedy Center, Johnny Mathis, too.
Mathis and Minnelli ripe for their Kennedy Center Honors!
Reader Missy Perry, while “not taking anything away from Liza” commented that LL Cool J being honored by the Kennedy Center represents “a generation and culture that is so misunderstood ... his honor speaks volumes.  He has crossed generational, color and class lines.  It truly shows how he has evolved from a young man from Queens, New York!”  I agree.  And now that he has that honor, time for Liza with a Z. 

Also unsurprisingly, everybody dissed Dustin Hoffman, and praised John Oliver for putting Hoffman on the spot the other night over those decades-old allegations of groping, and inappropriate behavior.  One reader said: “Doesn’t everyone know Dustin is a thoroughly unpleasant person? (Of course, this is from someone who has never met him.)”

Well, I have met Mr. Hoffman, and he was perfectly pleasant to me.  Naturally, that means nothing — Harvey Weinstein was always perfectly pleasant to me, too!  But simply having a reputation for ego or unpleasantness doesn’t automatically translate to acts and/or accusations of harassment.  This moment in our culture will have to play out.  I fear in the end, nobody is going to win, in spite of all the talk of “systemic change,” the cover of Time and an hour-by-hour read-off the latest accused who have fallen. 

A note also arrived from Peter Rogers the great ad-man who created the iconic Blackglama “What Becomes a Legend Most?” fur campaign.  After seeing the 1973 photo of Liza Minnelli’s “Legend” pic in this column, Peter wrote: “I cannot begin to tell you how many complaining, objecting letters we got about her smoking when the ad appeared!” 
This surprised me — 1973? But then I never kept up with the progress of the anti-smoking campaign because smoking was the only vice I avoided.  I have never even been tempted to try a cigarette. 

As far as I can research, only two other fur-clad legends smoked in their Blackglama ads; they were Bette Davis and Lillian Hellman, 1968 and 1976, respectively.
Contact Denis here.