Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Freedom and Fame

Confederate soldiers at camp.
“The Thin Light of Freedom” — thinner than we imagine, actually.  Also — Liza Minnelli ... Charles Busch ... Liz Smith and Liz Taylor.
by Denis Ferrara

“HE DID not acknowledge how badly wounded he was, as he kept telling us he was better all the time. I did not think it best to tell him of his situation, as we expected you every hour and wanted you to be the one, as I assure you it is a very painful think to tell an entire stranger he is dying.”

This is note to the wife of a Confederate soldier during the Civil War, from a man who tended to his wounds, as the soldier died, far away from home and his loved ones. 

The note is one of many poignant, angry, bewildered letters that pepper Edward L. Ayers excellent new book, “The Thin Light of Freedom: Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America.”  The real words of real people bring home the horror of the country’s most divisive war, the noble attempt at Reconstruction, the ignoble tearing down of it, and the determination of  formerly enslaved African Americans to rise above Southern hatred and — for all the fine talk of “equality” — the essential indifference of the North.  The partisan politics on both sides of the “great cause” seem shockingly, wearily, contemporary.

Ayers uses the experiences of two counties — Augusta, in Virginia, and Franklin in Pennsylvania to contrast the highly charged emotions and deeply held beliefs of both sides. The author’s spare, often elegant style emphasizes the tragic, gory madness that engulfed the United States for four years.  And it highlights the ingrained hatreds and — even worse — the indifference of slave-owners, most of whom literally convince themselves that they are “helping” the “inferior” black man.

The North and South had widely differing views on what a united country really was, and the painfully slow, intricate machinations, rationalizations, compromises make for a fascinating, and — to me, anyway — depressing read. As I lift my head from this book, and turn to the news, are we not still in battle mode — intransigent, blindly partisan, riddled with hypocrisies, seared, still, with racism? 

There is much detail, told matter-of-factly and all the more powerful for Ayers’ restraint; the bravery and eventual disillusionment of the freed African Americans who fought for the Union, and the remarkable women of the Civil War, on either side, all deeply committed, unafraid to express themselves frankly on paper and to speak their minds angrily and challengingly to the “enemy” himself — desperate soldiers who were strangers in a strange land that was at the same time, the very country their grandfathers had fought to free from the British.

As often as the phrases “never again” or “how could it have happened?” are applied to World War II, I find myself musing on those  dark sentiments more often when reading how Americans fought Americans. 

Because in so many ways this cruel war is not over.
AS YOU all know, Liz Smith was a great reader — how I would have enjoyed a long lunch discussing “The Thin Light of Freedom.” (She had strong opinions on her native South and the Civil War.)  But she was also a passionate theatergoer.  In remembrance of Liz’s appreciation for the stage, The Miranda Theater Co. and writer/director/producer Valentina Fratti will launch, every Tuesday in March, The First Annual Liz Smith Reading Series.  This will celebrate Women’s History Month. 

New plays will be presented — read — at Manhattan Theater Clubs Creative Space (311 West 43rd Street).

The readings begin March 6th, with “Prudence” by Caroline Prugh.  Followed by “Welcome to Madison” (Inda Craig-Galvan) ... ”Woman of the World” (Rebecca Gilman) and “Jazz” (Nambi E. Kelley.)  This is a good deal; a real Manhattan kind of thing — admission is free, a reception follows. Visit rsvp.mirandatheatreco@gmail.com
From Top left (clockwise): Caroline Prugh, Inda Craig-Galván, Rebecca Gilman, and Nambi E. Kelley.

... ON March 14th, at Cipriani Wall Street (55 Wall Street) the annual Literacy Partners gala will happen.  This was, of course. Liz Smith’s “pet” charity.  (I tried to get Liz not to use that phrase, about Literacy, and other charities associated with other celebrities — I felt it diminished the importance of the cause — but I never quite won that battle. I think it was Cassini-speak that she never got over.)

It was much more than a “pet” to Liz. She was a passionate, compulsive reader.  Talking books with her is perhaps what I miss most.  She believed powerfully in reading as a tool to a better life.  This year, Randy Falco, president and CEO of Univision will be honored ... publisher/writer/editor, literary agent Joni Evans receives The Lizzie Award ... Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz will read.  There will be special tribute to Liz, and her partners in Literacy Partners, Parker Ladd and Arnold Scaasi.  NBC’s super-smart and inescapably glamorous Cynthia McFadden hosts the night. 

For more info email allisons@literacypartners.org or call 646-237-0161.

... ON April 4th, the brilliant chameleon known as Charles Busch, debuts his latest “comic melodrama,” “The Confessions of Lily Dare,” written (of course) and starring (of course!) Mr. Busch as the beleaguered Lily Dare.  Lily — who travels the bumpy road from convent girl to brothel keeper — has her genesis in the wildly entertaining “fallen woman” genre of films such as “The Sin of Madelon Claudet,” “Frisco Jenny,” and the ultimate deluxe weepie, “Madame X.” 

The show, directed by Carl Andress runs through April 29th at  Johnson Theater at Theater For the City (155 First Ave.) The wildly prolific Busch — Tony award nominee for “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife” — promises, a “journey to the depths of a woman’s soul!”  As long as there’s a courtroom scene that involves intrusive hats, smothering veils, fainting and pistols, I’ll be satisfied.  Visit Smarttix.com for tickets.
... LAST, but most assuredly not least, on June 30th at Segerstrom Center, in Costa Mesa, California, “Liza Minnelli and Michael Feinstein in Conversation and Song.”  The old pals will reminisce about Liza’s legendary career, show clips from her movies and live performances and, perhaps, Miss Minnelli can be persuaded to warble a tune or two.  This is a big deal; Liza has kept a low profile lately and fans have been a bit concerned — not to worry.  But make your plane (or train) reservations now, and call 714-556-2787 for tix.  Oh, use the special code “Liza2018” when ordering.
TODAY would have been Elizabeth Taylor’s 86th birthday.  Taylor — whom Liz Smith first met on the Paris set of “The Sandpiper” — came to feature more in this space than perhaps any other star. Even when Liz (Smith) wasn’t always hot to do anything more on Taylor, I — the rabid little fan who had once lurked in doorways, hotel lobbies and ran after ET’s car — was always there, nudging and writing.  It paid off, spectacularly.  Liz was the only journalist invited to ET’s last wedding to Larry Fortensky held on the grounds of Michael Jackson’s Neverland.
"You better cough up a big check for my Foundation, or I'll KILL you!!"  It never quite came to this. But La Liz was never shy about her fundraising.
Miss Smith had at first expressed scant interest in attending.  I went wild at her sanguine attitude and insisted she call up Taylor’s rep, Chen Sam, and remind her of every nice thing we’d ever written about her — and Larry.  Of course, I was hoping to travel with Liz, to the ceremony.  This did not happen. (“Elizabeth says one  member of the press,” murmured  Chen. “You’d make two.”) But at least I got to ET’s 60th birthday party at Disneyland.

There are a million glamorous and exciting memories to call upon — no star I ever encountered generated such frenzy. I was once astonished to see grown men and women leap out of their cars on Central Park South, as Taylor made a riotous, paparazzi-surrounded exit from the Sherry Netherland Hotel, just to “get a look.”
But what marks La Liz’s greatness were the final years, as her health declined with distressing swiftness. She never removed herself from public life. Other great beauties, aging precipitously, in constant pain, might have withdrawn.  Taylor had found the meaning of her “ridiculous fame” as she once put it — the AIDS fight.  She kept on keeping on till the very end. “They’ll gossip about how I’m old and can’t walk” she said, “But as long as they put their money down for the cause, who the fuck cares?  When I was young and skinny, they’d say, ‘Oh, but she’s so short!  You can’t win. And that’s the most important thing younger people should know about fame — do what you like, say what you like, be yourself.”

If Elizabeth was here, she’d be pleased to know, and make it part of her birthday celebration, that the actor Scott Wolf has joined up with the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation to help combat  HIV and malaria, which take two million lives a year in Africa. Scott is raising funds for five mobile health units that offer healthcare to rural communities in Malawi and elsewhere.
Do you want to honor the star in the way she’d appreciate best?  (Because she tended to cackle and roll her eyes if you praised her career or complimented her beauty.)  Visit elizabethtayloraidsfoundation.org/

Wherever she is — eating, drinking, loving, laughing, surrounded by men and pets (my idea of heaven — and definitely hers!) — she would surely send a blessing.
Taylor and the great Dr. Mathilde Krim announce the formation of amFAR in 1985.
Contact Denis here.