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A life well lived, with love and with laughter

Looking south along the Great Lawn. 4:15 PM. Photo: JH.
September 7, 2010. All those terrifying weather forecasts about killer hurricanes at the end of last week ended up with a couple of cloudy days, a light cooling breeze and an absolutely gorgeous holiday weekend in New York.

In the summer of 1985, I was living in Los Angeles
when a friend mine, a Viennese woman by the name of Marlene MacDonald sublet her apartment for a couple of months to Kitty Kelley, who was researching a biography she was writing about Frank Sinatra. Although I didn’t personally know Sinatra, I knew several who knew him well and had known him for a long time. Marlene knew that and suggested Kitty call me to interview. Which she did.

The Chairman of the Board in the late 1950s after his great comback that propelled his career to higher heights.
Bill and Edie Goetz on the terrace of their house on 300 Delfern Drive in Holmby Hills.
At that moment, in the world that was Hollywood, Sinatra was king. There were bigger stars, directors and producers, bigger corporate film executives, richer, and currently more famous, but Sinatra possessed an eminence gris, however you want to look at it. He was without peer. This status, which appeared to be lifelong to his public, was something he consciously acquired over the years, after his great comeback in the mid-1950s, cultivating the friendship of the social lions and lionesses of the film colony as it existed then.

Despite the fact that Sinatra was well known to be a no-bullshit person, he was a sophisticated man in many ways. He liked the company of the rich, the chic and the shameless wherever he traveled, particularly if they came with the provenance of power, be it industry, celebrity, or political.

Furthermore he was a generous man of the community, a private philanthropist, a devoted father, even ex-husband; and a legendary lover who could still charm all the women just by walking into the room and greeting one with a “hello doll,” like a loaded question she (they) only had the answer for.

His power was perceived as Equal to the highest. Or greater. Very few had his connections, and everybody knew it, even if they weren’t sure what those “connections” were. While that power was perceived as potentially “threatening,” on a personal level he was charming, loyal, and a host extraordinaire. Plus rich and famous.

When Kitty embarked on the book, Sinatra was 70 and his own kind of distinguished gentleman of the community. One of those ladies in his sphere was Edie Goetz, the eldest daughter of L.B.Mayer, the one-time king of Hollywood and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios. Edie was also the widow of William “Billy” Goetz, a partner in founding of 20th Century Fox. In the late 1950s through the 1960s, the Goetzes were king and queen of the hill and Sinatra was a frequent guest at their always stellar dinner table.

When Billy Goetz died of stomach cancer at 66 in 1969, Sinatra took special care of his widow who subsequently began to imagine he was in love with her. This misperception on Edie Goetz’ part brought about an eventual and complete break in their friendship. As a woman scorned, although she never dropped her “royal” sense of image – she was her father’s daughter, Edie was gobsmacked by The Voice and shared her drama of his rejection with almost all who would listen. I was one who was more than willing.
Alas not really the object of his affection: Edie Goetz in her Billy Haines designed library of her Holmby Hills mansion.
When Kitty Kelley came around to see me that afternoon on Doheny Drive in Hollywood Hills, I was willing to share too. We had one of those conversations you might imagine would occur with Kitty Kelley, with the boldfaced-name bits and morsels bouncing off the walls and bookcases, then punctured by intense silence and stirring laughter. She’s very good.

During that conversation that Kitty asked me if I knew Larry Ashmead. No. Never heard of him. Larry, she explained, was an editor at (what was then called) Harper & Row, Publishers in New York. “He will love you,” she said flattering my oft-flattened-by-Hollywood writer’s ego, telling me she was going to introduce us.

Larry Ashmead. Photo by Chrys Ingraham. 2004
Soon after, I persuaded Mrs. Goetz to grant an interview to Kitty Kelley about her “friend” Frank. (Mrs. Goetz recovered from her having been scorned and still referred to him as a friend she knew well, although Mr. Sinatra never spoke to her again after her insults (see NYSD 12.12.07).

Soon after, at the suggestion of Kitty, who provided the introduction, I wrote a letter to Larry Ashmead in New York telling him about myself and my struggle as well as imparting several morsels of Hollywood gossip and lore to compensate for the very real possibility of boring him with my own story.

Thus we come, long way around, to Larry Ashmead. Who died last Friday morning at age 78 after a stroke from which, thankfully, he suffered very briefly.

Larry would have loved that introduction. I can even see him reading it and smiling with that big grin you see in this photograph by Chrys Ingraham, that ran in yesterday’s Times. His multitudes of friends and acquaintances know that sunny laughter.

He would have adored this memory along with the different degrees of separation with the world of Hollywood and celebrity and fame and money and tacky backstreet dramas in rooms with walls paneled in silks and satins.

And that’s how we met. Through a letter. This was before a computer, and I never made carbon copies or xeroxes of my letters. Larry always responded immediately. Always with a note, sometimes with a clipping or a book. And so our friendship began.

From my point of view, I was still a newly hatching writer, full of fear and doubt, looking for a career (i.e. a job to pay the rent), and Larry was an important editor at an important publishing house in New York. This impressed me very much. The very existence of the publishing business still impresses me.

Larry Ashmead and one of his legions of admirers at a reception given for him on his retirement in 2003.
A year later – Kitty’s book had come out to best-sellerdom – I was hired to write an autobiography for Debbie Reynolds. My correspondence with Larry had continued during this time, although we’d never met in person, as I was still in LA and he was in New York. When Debbie’s book was published, I went with her when she made a booksigning appearance at the ABA annual book fair, which was held in LA that year.

In the course of the day, several people from New York introduced themselves and told me how much they liked my writing. Since the Debbie book had just been published, and I was the “ghost,” I didn’t know what they were talking about. Finally I asked one woman what “writing” she was referring to. “Oh, your letters to Larry Ashmead,” she said. “He xeroxes them and sends them around. They’re hysterical.”

“Oh God,” I thought. I’d written those letters for His Eyes Only (never occurring to me anyone else would ever see them), and I never censored myself in recounting the spilled beans of Hollywood, naming names, filling in the tawdriest details (or mainly foibles).

Shortly after that, I did go to New York where Larry and I finally met at the Yale Club where he took me to lunch. This was a big moment for me, one of those moments where your self-perception is forever altered. I’m a writer, having a lunch with an important New York book editor. A book editor at that point in my life was still Maxwell Perkins. Scott Berg had written a brilliant biography of him a few years before. Perkins loved writers. He guided and nurtured them (and rescued and put up with them too).
Eastman Kodak publicity shot with Larry the little boy.
Larry Ashmead turned out to be was one of those editors. The luncheon that day in the dryly institutional dining room (with a corresponding menu) was serious and without laughs. It was arranged so that we could meet, but it was clear that as an editor he was meeting a writer. I was humbled. I already knew he liked anecdotes and stories about the famous. So I talked.

His own personality was mainly that of a good listener. There was an intimacy in his conversation: he was quiet spoken but deliberate like a good leader. He’d add to a subject only if he had something to add. He might counter with a similar story about someone, of something absurd, or outrageous, or maybe the aberrant behavior of another (often someone well known). His denouements would end in laughter, including his. He had no expectations of people but took them as they presented themselves. He was always amazed and amused by the human condition and its foibles. This gift provided a life of great interest, camaraderie and friendship.

In those days when I was living in California, he’d often send me copies of Quest magazine, then a tiny little real estate/social magazine created and run by an Englishwoman named Heather Cohane. I’d read it with interest, and often think to myself: “I could do this.” Then in 1990 he proposed that I write a biography on the Cushing sisters, three very social women from the mid-20th century New York. He also found me an agent, Jed Mattes, and offered me a very healthy advance. The project, however, was ill-fated and eventually dropped and I never wrote it.
Steve Millington and Danny Debella at Michael's with Larry who lunched there two to three times a week for many years.
I was deeply embarrassed by what I considered my failure to deliver what (might have been) expected. Larry on the other hand, moved on, and it was never mentioned again until only a few months ago, when he wrote me a long email about the NYSD and my Diary which he has been reading since its inception 17 years ago. He praised my efforts in much the way a coach praises a player, with concise insight and, in passing, he told me he thought this was a good time to take up the subject of the sisters again. It was the editor speaking to the writer.

He had a modest bearing as a man in the room. Dignified but circumspect. As Douglas Martin writes in the Times obit, Larry was a workhorse of an editor, bringing all kinds of books to publication. I have no doubt Larry showed all of his authors as well as many aspiring authors, all the attention and sensitivity he showed me. He loved his business. He loved writers. He loved books. And he loved the human comedy.

Once when recounting his first days here in New York, a kid from Rochester, fresh out of school, still wet behind the ears as they used to say, he recalled how mesmerized he was by the different characters of city life. He was shocked dumb when the first saw a drag queen. He didn’t know such persons existed, let alone went out in public. That Thanksgiving when he went home to Rochester for the holiday, he told his mother.
Jane Friedman, Ann Rivers Siddons, Larry Ashmead, Simon Winchester, and Susan Isaacs at Larry's retirement party in 2003.
“You know mother, there are even men who dress up like women and go out in the street! Have you ever heard of such a thing?” he asked still dumfounded.

Whereupon his mother replied, “Well, who do you think your Aunt Ethel is?”

He laughed when he repeated that line, still astounded (and highly amused) all these years later; Aunt Ethel -- whom he saw all the time growing up in Rochester – was, unbeknownst to the boy, a transvestite.

Walter Mathews and Leila Luce in 2003.
He’d laugh again, I know, if he could have read this.

He had a good life. Back in the late 50s or early 60s, one night after work he stopped in a popular burger bistro-bar on Third Avenue in the low 60s called Daley’s Dandelion owned by orchestra conductor Skitch Henderson. There he met a man a few years older than he named Walter Mathews. Larry and Walter struck up a relationship that lasted for the rest of their lives together (Walter died in 2003).

They lived separately in the city but shared a weekend house – first a beach house in Sagaponack that they later sold to Truman Capote, and then to a house in Tuscany, and the big brick Victorian house in Stuyvesant, just above Hudson, New York where Larry lived until last week.

He retired from his editorial duties four years ago. To those of us who knew him well, his health seemed to decline noticeably after Walter died.

He left many many friends, with many memories, and many many gifts. Larry Ashmead.
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