Friday, December 12, 2008

Speaking of great talent ...

Reflection of The Empire State Building. 10:00 PM. Photo: JH.
12/12. Cold and pouring in New York. Started late afternoon; by nightfall rain was coming down horizontally on strong winds. Those of us who went out last night got very wet if not soaked.

Today is Frank Sinatra’s birthday.
He would have been 93. Old Blue Eyes. The Voice. The Chairman of the Board. There are a million wonderful stories about Sinatra and no doubt many are untrue or at least apochryphal. Doesn’t matter; they were all in character. A tough character, complicated, not easy, and wildly talented, as the whole world knows.

One of those stories which came to me first-hand was from Edith Mayer Goetz, the eldest daughter of Louis B. Mayer and veritable princess of Hollywood, who late in life was a momentarily self-styled “girl” of Frank’s. I’ve published it in these pages before but I can’t resist re-running it. You’ll find it at the end of this Diary. But first things first.

Last night I went to see what was originally supposed to be the opening night of the Roundabout Theatre revival of Rodgers and Hart’s “Pal Joey.” “Supposed to be” because the date got pushed back because of a classic backstage drama.

Matthew Risch
The man originally cast as Joey, Christian Hoff, left the show the Monday before Thanksgiving when it was first in previews. Hoff had previously starred as Tommy deVito in Jersey Boys.

Various reasons were given for the sudden departure but it turned out that Mr. Hoff got his walking papers for the dancing role. Not sure why, since I wasn’t there, but it had something to do with “chemistry.” Coincidentally Brooke Hayward told me at lunch yesterday when she heard I was going, that she’d seen it when it first went into previews. It fell flat for her. She walked out at intermission. She wasn’t the only one. But that was then.

Just like in the old Warner Brothers’ musical “42nd Street,” “Pal Joey” is the real life imitation of fiction. The star’s not working out. Started with a canceling of a Saturday matinee. That night the understudy, a boy out of the chorus (Matthew Risch) goes on in the star’s place. Sunday morning a new star was born on Broadway.

This is the Broadway fable.
Mr. Risch was a gypsy, He’d been in the chorus of a number of shows. Chorus people (they call them “ensemble” now) are pros. They’re the heavy lifters and they know heavy. You saw “A Chorus Line.” That’s the story. They live to work and starve to work; dream the dream, and take delivery of the disappointment.

Mr. Risch’s career, judging from his credits, was moving along solidly if uninspiringly ... until. But this guy must have been working at his craft just the same. The packed house last night saw the results.

When he got that fated call to go on for the star, he was definitely ready. And he was fabulous; a real Joey, a real heel. And for the show, an actor/dancer/singer. You don’t find a lot of that combination on Broadway anymore. He was also perfect partner for Stockard Channing’s perfect Vera Simpson, the older society woman who takes up with Joey and lives to tell about it is perfect; the perfect heel for Gladys and the perfect romantic lead for Jenny Fellner’s Linda English.

It’s vintage Broadway, now period; yet as contemporary and accessible as Rent. Maybe moreso. It first opened on Christmas night 1940 with Gene Kelly (getting his Big Break before he went to Hollywood) in the starring role and a cast including Vivienne Segal as Vera, June Havoc as Gladys, and Van Johnson and Stanley Donen in the chorus. This show must be a good luck charm.

The original book was by the man who wrote the stories for the New Yorker about the character, John O’Hara. O’Hara has always been my inspiration. The new book is by Richard Greenburg and he never loses a beat ... between all the laughs. Arch, wry, witty, funny, even camp. The good old American story of a guy playing both ends (and girls in this case) against the middle and producing disaster. Of course there is always room for improvement (reform) is the denouement.

This was the last score that Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart wrote together and the beginning of Hart’s great decline. Its economic milieu was Chicago in the Depression. So the times are right for the replay. The music and the lyrics were brilliant and witty. A couple of standards emerged along with a completely familiar score. That’s the part that’s not modern, if you don’t mind my saying. Martha Plimpton’s Gladys’ big number, “Zip,” is a take-off on the famous wit of the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee (which was first played by Lee’s sister June Havoc). Martha Plimpton: Nobody could have done it better. Maybe as good as, but not better. I ran into Mary Rodgers Guettal, one of Richard Rodgers’ daughters last night during intermission. She said “To think Martha Plimpton went for twenty years before singing on stage!”

The original show was directed by the now immortal George Abbott. The current version is smartly directed by Joe Mantello, the man who directed Wicked, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Vagina Monologues, Assassins and many others. Like Mr. Risch’s performance, like the dark Depression-like sets that turn snappy and smart and then back again, just like the William Ivey Long costumes (see NYSD HOUSE) with all their wit, color and imagination; like the Plimpton “Zip,” there’s not a moment’s let down.
The cast taking their bows last night at Studio 54 Theatre. That's Matt Risch (Joey) in the red tie, Stockard Channing to the right and Martha Plimpton to her right. Great cast; lousy photographer.
Back to the beginning. Frank Sinatra played the part of Joey in the film -- with Kim Novak and Rita Hayworth -- which for some reason wasn’t made until about 15 years after the show closed. It wasn’t one of the memorable appearances of The Voice – although of course he handled the Rodgers and Hart in his signature, masterly way. The film, however, lost that zip, that wit that I saw again last night. Old Blue Eyes, himself, would have been better cast about fifteen years earlier. Rita Hayworth also was just at the beginning -- unbeknownst to anyone at the time -- of her great decline that later was diagnosed. Hermes Pan, the Astaire collaborator and choreographer and Hayworth friend literally worked out the moves in the scenes with her because she was having “memory problems” which were then attributed to her fears about her aging and her career.

But that was then; this is now. “Pal Joey” couldn’t be more timely, historically speaking. The only problem with the show is that it will only run through February 15th. This is great American theatre, fresh as if it were created yesterday. This is one of those shows that you take home with pleasure and curiosity about seeing it again just to get another jolt of pleasure. Don’t miss if you can help it. Real Pleasure.

Which speaking of great talent, we have some more photos from KiptonART’s salon series concert by Joshua Bell the night before last at Bell’s apartment. Another jolt of pleasure out of the blue. This was another one of those “Don’t Miss” moments. I’ve been pretty lucky this week.
Click to watch scenes from Joshua Bell's performance on his 1713 Stradivarius on the occasion of his 41st birthday in his Manhattan apartment. 12/10/08.
If you ever have the opportunity to see and hear Mr. Bell perform with his legendary Stradivarius, no matter how much you like or don’t like classical music, go. It doesn’t matter what you like.

Mr. Bell will show you the way.
Moby, Lawrence Robbins, and Phil Ramone
Alissa Glauda, Barbara Ferraro, and Michelle Edgar
Adam Weinberg and Kipton Cronkite
In the elevator: Anna-Marie Brisighello, Kathy Tong, Victoria Bousis, and Marianne Trudel
Ally Hilfiger, Kipton Cronkite, and George Soros
Mother Shirley Bell, Joshua Bell, Rachel Bell, and Toby Gill
Anna-Marie Brisighello and Marianne Trudel
David and Alexandria Bryan
Bernd Beetz and Renee Fleming
Julia Moore and Kipton Cronkite
Ally Hilfiger, Xin Li, and Camilla Olsson
Joshua Bell and Whitley Bouma Herbert
Camilla Olssen, Kathy Tong, Joshua Bell, Marianne Trudel, and Anna-Marie Brisighello
Sean Gross and Doug Fitch
Kate Gibbs, Phil Ramone, and Deborah Fenker
Kate Polanski, Jamie Benjamin, and Laura Marzucco
Keith Bloomfield and Mark Mullett
Kat Mack and Roman Seefeldt
Lawrence Robbins and Victoria Bousis
Chau Ngo and Brianna Swanson
Kathy Tong
Natalie Watkins, Jacqueline Sharp, and Maria Aiello
Like “Pal Joey,” we are reviving, for your reading pleasure (if that’s what it amounts to) my once-told story of Edie Goetz and her moment of Sinatra romance and dance and glory leaving an honest-to-God trail of Pal Joey in its wake.
Eleanor Roosevelt enjoying the company of Frank Sinatra.
12/12/07. Frank Sinatra, the great popular American singer and song stylist who died in 1998, was born on this day 92 years ago. I met Mr. Sinatra only once, and very late in his life when he was running on empty but still retaining that bravado that made him a star and made him an admired, respected and even beloved friend to a lot of people. There is more than one generation of us who sang along with Sinatra’s recordings for a lifetime, hearing his voice and his personality in our voices imitating him. It was a powerful sound and a powerful fury.

One of my favorite albums was “Where Are You?” which came out when I was a teen-ager when the man’s voice and the lyrics he sang evoked and articulated all the hormone-induced passionate longings and intensely romantic notions of adolescence — all heavily seasoned with the bittersweet. His was the stuff of poetry to a very young man who knew little more than “how it felt” to be alive. Almost a half century later, the same album of songs returns me directly to all of those evocations and longings — as well as the precious bittersweet.

Frank Sinatra, 1970 (AP file).
My late friend Ardie Deutsch knew Sinatra for many years and was part of a close-knit group of friends that was the “social” (as in “society”) side of his garrulous life. Ardie adored Frank, enjoyed his extravagant camaraderie, and also knew his parameters from experience. He once told me of a moment when the gang was staying with Frank in Palm Springs. Ardie had been out somewhere and had just entered the house when he saw Frank on the phone really letting someone have it with a torrent of raging epithets that could be most gently described as purple.

Before Ardie passed through the room, the phone call was completed and Ardie, who was a mild-mannered fellow and friend, asked with some some surprise in his curiosity: “What was that about?” Whereupon the Chairman of the Board turned on Ardie, unleashing the same shocking rage and profanity.

“Whoa!” thought Mr. Deutsch who promptly left the room without another word. Mr. Sinatra later apologized without explanation. Ardie got the picture and his friend was promptly forgiven.

The man was a bundle of contradictions, the sum total of which made him deeply attractive to many people, men and women for a lot of reasons, although with women it often had to do with sex. Janet de Cordova who with her late husband Freddie, was very much a part of Sinatra’s Hollywood social circuit in its heyday, once told me that when Sinatra entered a room and uttered “hiya doll” to any woman, she wanted to go to bed with him. It was an animal magnetism that was garnished with charm, looks, money and power. There isn’t a man living today, no matter how much he possesses of any of the aforementioned, who could match Sinatra’s; not a one. Furthermore he didn’t give a damn about it, unless crossed.

He was a legendary friend. In the 1960s he became very friendly with Bill and Edie Goetz who were then the reigning social couple in movieland. Regular readers know all this but I’m going to thumbnail the following background: Mrs. Goetz (pronounced Gets) was the eldest daughter of L.B. Mayer (as in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), and was the Hollywood version of to-the-manor-born. Mr. Goetz was a very successful film executive who’d started out as a partner with Darryl Zanuck in the original 20th Century-Fox Studios (thanks to his father-in-law), and later acquired the failing Universal-International Studios, which a few years later sold to Jules Stein and MCA for a pretty penny. Goetz was also a favorite of all the guys and the women. He had an outgoing personality, given to bon mots that were a little on the blue side, a jokester who some believed wished he could have been Jack Benny (a close friend) or George Burns. He was very successful in business, and played the role of jester to his princess. It was a very successful marriage where he played foil to his wife’s social pretenses and they openly displayed affection for each other by calling each other Snoogie. People were amused by it and respected it. Together they entertained royally (and exclusively) in their Holmby Hills mansion filled with an extensive collection of Impressionist art.

Aside from his tough-guy personality, Frank Sinatra, also liked the glittering, sophisticated, and exclusive “society” of the Goetzes. He pursued it and was welcomed with open arms. The result was a coterie that became identified with him celebrity-wise during that decade – Edie and Bill Goetz, Ardie and Harriet Deutsch, Phyllis and Bennett Cerf, Rosalind Russell and Freddie Brisson, Jack and Mary Benny, Jimmy and Gloria Stewart, Leland and Pamela (later Harriman) Hayward, Claudette Colbert and Joel Pressman, Irving and Mary Lazar, Billy and Audrey Wilder, and a writer and wit named Harry Kurnitz.

This was a group far from the Mafia
and Vegas show-biz types that the press often rightfully associated with him. Every New Year’s Eve Sinatra would fly them up to Las Vegas in his private plane, put them up in a hotel, supply them with a bag of chips for the gaming tables and entertain them ringside at his performance. And they loved it; who wouldn’t? To borrow the phrase from the late Katharine Hepburn referring to the winning screen combination of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: they gave him “class” and he gave them “sex.” Well, sort of: truth told, it was the sexiness of being in his orbit that appealed to everyone.

When Bill Goetz became ill with stomach cancer in the late 1960s, Sinatra flew him back and forth to the Mayo Clinic for treatment, and on his final trip back to Los Angeles, Sinatra was with him and right by his side. Naturally unabashed and unself-conscious about his affection for another, he was a loving and adoring friend and he loved Bill Goetz.

When Goetz died in 1969, Sinatra mourned the loss deeply. He also took the widow Goetz under his wing. It has been said that it was the habit of the Chairman to comfort the grieving widows of his friends with intensely sincere attention, also known, in the lingo of his buddies as: the mercy-fuck.

Edie Goetz was sixty-four when her husband died, and they had been a devoted to each other for their almost forty years of marriage. Aside from her husband, she was not a woman who attracted a lot of romantic male admirers, although she had long had a politically powerful allure in the movie business for the obvious reasons. So when Frank began looking after her and comforted her with his most intimate attention, she was like a teen-age girl having her first affair. The difference was her suitor was the sexiest, most attractive, most sought after man she ever knew, saw or heard about. And ten years her junior.

No one who knew both parties ever thought that Frank Sinatra was seriously interested in Edie Goetz other than as a good friend. Mrs. Goetz, however, being the princess that she had come to believe she was — over the course of several decades of being on the top of the social heap, pampered, attended and paid homage to, saw an opportunity to experience youth again. She was taking a chance at the Big Casino of Dolldom, and she was all shook up. For, of all of the gifts and privileges that Dad and Dame Fortune and her Snoogie had bestowed on her, she had never been the recipient of the love, attention and carnal knowledge of a True Swain, let alone the Idol of Millions.
Edie Goetz in her Billy Haines library of her Holmby Hills mansion.
All of this led Mrs. Goetz down the path of self-delusion, as it would many a girl, thinking she might one day, (even in her mid-sixties), become the wife of a man whose previous wife (Mia Farrow) was half his age (Edie Goetz had been the matron of honor at the Farrow-Sinatra wedding).

Whatever Mr. Sinatra thought of this situation, is unknown, at least to this writer. However, it is known that when he saw the lady’s temperature rising, he turned on the air-conditioning and began making himself a little scarcer, as they say.

It should be noted that he did not entirely desert the grieving widow for, whatever his failings, he was also a man true to his word. He continued to call and to look after her, and, although a little more occasionally than before, escort her to dinner.

His kindnesses were appreciated by Mrs. Goetz, to a point. Because underneath she was steaming in more ways than one: she wanted him, and yet she knew she had been rejected. The Hollywood of the moguls, which is what we’re dealing with here, was a very small town of very big egos. Everyone knew everyone else’s business be it monkey or big, or thought they did; and everyone had an opinion about all of it, and never a charitable one. The fact that the community knew Frank Sinatra was never going to marry Edie Goetz was not only an ego crusher to the woman who really had been The Mrs. Astor of her time and place, but it was also humiliating and infuriating, not to mention evidence that her reign was over: the good news: (Frank Sinatra’s attentiveness); was also the bad news: (he wasn’t going to marry her).

The power of a woman, as defined by Edie Goetz, in her imagined yet self-actualized world, was the ability to “get a man.” “I could always get a man,” she would recall looking back over her life. As much as some who knew her might have scoffed at the idea, this was not an unrealistic self-assessment. She had grown up in a world where her father had gone from owner of a neighborhood nickelodeon to head of the greatest movie studio in the world – and with his name on it. He was the most powerful man in the community for more than two generations of stars. He was a father who also had idolized his coy and demanding daughter. And, she then left Dad’s house to marry a man who despite his own extra-marital affairs demonstrated undying loyalty and devotion to her and made their marriage a paragon in that community that mocked the institution.

Otherwise, people could argue, the men were not banging down her door – except to be invited to dine, in a town where some men would sell their grandmother for such an invitation.

And so it was that the Chairman of the Board, Frank, Francis Albert Sinatra, the idol of millions, the man who could wither any dame with two simple words “hiya doll,” had (deeply) disappointed Edie Goetz, leaving her just another lonely heart along the boulevard of broken dreams. But, as she was a true child of Hollywood where thought and illusion are interchangeable, Edie Goetz was no dying swan. Her natural self-defense was the same as that of Norma Desmond, the ex-film star in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, who when confronted by a young, potential swain with the lost magnitude of her former stardom, responded: “I’m still big; the pictures got smaller.”

And so it was that one night under the stars of the desert sky that is Los Angeles, with the jasmine in bloom filling the air with exotic fragrance, Frank Sinatra dutifully escorted Edie Goetz to a dinner party at the Bistro, then a popular restaurant in Beverly Hills. And when they returned to her famous house on Delfern Drive, she invited him in for a nightcap. And while they sat facing each other in the famous Billy Haines-designed library under the shelves of the late William Goetz’s collection of first edition books, Edie brought the conversation around to “them.”
With nary a word from Frank, she broached the subject of what (she or) some people viewed as their “romance” and its future. And without waiting for, or asking, his opinion of the situation, she very coolly “explained” to this man — who probably had more women who wanted to marry him in a single average month than all the Impressionist paintings in the Goetzes’ famous collection — that although many had imagined that he and she would marry, and that she could understand why people would think that — because they had been friends for so long, and because Frank loved Billy so, and because they all loved each other very much, and that she might be a perfect wife for him (Frank) at this time in his life, etcetera; she continued:

“But what people don’t understand is that I could never marry you Frank, because Deane Johnson (Edie’s lawyer) told me you were a hoodlum.

A hoodlum.

Whereupon, Frank Sinatra, ladykiller without peer, idol of millions, turned several shades of purple, (according to Mrs. Goetz’ memory) put down his drink, and without uttering another syllable, got up, walked out of the room, walked out of the house, slamming the door, got into his car, drove out of the driveway and into the night, never to return to or speak to Edie Goetz again.

From her point of view, it had been a victory, albeit a hollow one. She lived another fifteen years believing his departure and eternal estrangement was the result of her uttering the truth. Whatever regrets she had were buried in the backstory of her actions that night in her library. In retrospect, the move on her part was a foolish one because Frank Sinatra had indeed been her friend and defender, and in all likelihood would have remained so for ever after, even after he married his wife Barbara. But as it happened, he could never abide even the mention of her name.

Frank Sinatra’s fame, and the power that the legend of his personality brought him, continued unimpeded, reaching far beyond anything Edie Goetz had enjoyed in her heyday. Although the subject that Mrs. Goetz had chosen to even the score, was his Achilles heel. He’d come a long, long way from Hoboken and risen up more than once from the show business ashes. Kitty Kelley’s scandalous best-selling biography of the man was so popular it made her rich, and even his friend and admirer Ardie Deutsch testified that Kelley had “pretty much got it right.”

The “getting it right” also includes a man who was loyal, devoted, generous, self-indulged, egomaniacal, volatile, kind, gentle, complex, abusive at times, mindful of his responsibilities to his wives and to his children, and ... The Voice. In memory, nine years on, those of us millions who, like Edie Goetz and all those dames and all those devils who fell for his tough guy charm, and were swept away by the voice, remain unabashed, his followers and his fans. Get out one of your Sinatra albums and see for yourself.

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