Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Jackie, Marilyn, and Eartha

Riverside Park. 4:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Wednesday, February 23, 2011. Sunny and cold in New York.

I went to lunch at Michael’s with Kitt Shapiro. We met through Susan Fales-Hill. She and Kitt are old close friends. Their mothers had been close friends and so they have known each other since they were small children.

Kitt’s mother was Eartha Kitt, the legendary chanteuse who became very famous in the early 1950s with the song C’est Si Bon, which she introduced in Leonard Sillman’s New Faces of 1952 on Broadway. She was 25 then and already had almost a decade of show business in her CV.

I remember that song when it came out. I was a little kid. Every summer we went to the Cape for two weeks. This was pre-turnpikes and it was a trek of five or six hours across the state. The car radio was the family companion. C’est Si Bon sung by Eartha Kitt was the tune of the moment. I must have heard it a dozen times on the drive to North Eastham, Mass.
DPC and Kitt Shapiro at Michael's.
I had no idea what it meant. Although I could say it: say-see-bow-n. I knew it had something to do with Romance and France. I didn’t know what that was; I was a kid and I knew who Eartha Kitt was. And she purred like a kitten. I thought that was how she got her name.

I didn’t tell that irrelevant piece of personal history to her daughter yesterday at lunch. I might have but Kitt turned out to be one of those people who is Right There, and our conversation went off into the Nature of Things or Life Among the Savages, the Hoi Polloi, the Rich and Famous and the people who live in the same town.

Eartha and daughter Kitt at the 74th annual Hollywood Christmas Parade, 2005.
Her mother, the legend, had one husband, and one daughter. Divorce for the husband and a lifelong friend in and for the daughter. She was with her mother to her last breath on December 25, 2008.

Mother had the saga. It was horrendous to most of us although not altogether uncommon in that day and age for a little African-American girl living in South Carolina, illegitimate, child of a rape; a mother of African-American Cherokee, a father probably German or Dutch. She was so light skinned that other children used to beat her up for it. Tie her to a tree and whip her with sugar canes. Someone had the wherewithal to send her to live with an aunt here in New York “before someone killed her.” In case you’re wondering what poverty is. The “aunt,” Mamie Kitt, turned out to be Eartha’s real mother.

She began dancing with the Katherine Dunham Company when she was sixteen. Her daughter Kitt is writing a book about Mother and Her Life (and their life).

Kids who grow up in Show Business, especially where the parent or parents are famous performers have unusual childhoods compared to most of us. A famous parent commands a much greater attention. Actors, like artists, have to hustle with their wits to keep the show on the road. He or she can also have ego issues that compete, and often victoriously, with their children. The adults live in a world where they are the center. Children, naturally see themselves as the center. This creates a unique conflict that can be burdensome for a childhood. Stories of abuse can follow no matter what fans may want to think of their idols.

Another aspect of a childhood in Show Business is parents traveling frequently to earn a living (performing in clubs and concerts, shooting a film, acting in a play). Children become part of the entourage. This provides a kind of worldly exposure that us ordinary kids never get growing up. Show business kids meet all kinds of people as well as kids their own age but it was always in a grown-up’s world.
Still lunching ...
Kitt Shapiro had one of those childhoods. Furthermore the mother wanted her, and wanted her there. The kid came first along with mother. The mother, despite all her hardship early in life, didn’t invest in fear, her daughter told me yesterday. She had fear many times in her life but she believed that giving into it was a distraction from dealing with whatever caused it.

Mother worked all her life. When she lay dying in early December 2008, she knew that she was not going to perform again, that her days were numbered. She then canceled several engagements she had booked for the coming year, 2009. She would have been 82. Still working. Blessed and blessing.

Which reminds: the auction of items from the estate of another legend, Lena Horne, is being held today at Doyle NewYork Galleries on 175 East 87th Street between Lexington and Third at 2 PM. I can’t get there but I was very tempted. Coincidentally Horne and Kitt had similarly close relationships with their daughters.

Pamela Keogh and DPC at the Carlisle Collection.
After my lunch with Kitt Shapiro, I went over to the Carlisle Collection on East 52nd Street where I was interviewing Pamela Keogh, the author of Are You A Jackie Or Are You A Marilyn? Timeless Lessons on Love, Power, and Style. Pamela has also written two other books: Jackie Style and What Would Audrey Do? Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe. Three books and three people including Jackie twice.

It took me awhile to understand the concept of this book which I learned is very easy for women to understand. Women take other women’s images very seriously for their own edification.

So there was a lot of talk about those two women who were contemporaries and from opposite ends of the social ladder. Although Marilyn went celestial leaving no one in her wake. Nevertheless, what they had in common was ambition. They were enormously motivated; ambitious to make the most of their lives. That kind of ambition in man or woman requires a focus that often distorts a person’s sense of “need.”

Pamela told us yesterday that Jackie and Marilyn are not known to have met. She also said that JFK and RFK did not sleep with Marilyn and that she barely met either one. We’ve been so inculcated with a notion about the three of them in relationship to each other, that “never” now seems far-fetched. Which doesn’t mean it’s not true.

The author also said that Jackie was just as popular with the men as Marilyn was. Although ten million college boys weren’t drooling over her when she was at the peak of her fame as it was with Monroe. She quoted a friend of Jackie’s from her early 20s who said Jackie was always surrounded by men. Obviously both women acquired carnal knowledge in their young lives.
I was most interested in the business of biography and these two women. Very little has been written about Jacqueline Onassis in terms of biography. Many who could be excellent sources on the life and personality and habits of the woman will not speak about her for a number of given reasons usually cocooned by the warm and cozy grounds of privacy. Hers was Big Life. Life is about privacy but history is not. Individuals who play prominent parts in the story our lives and times are most valuable reflections as “real” versus “imagined and idealized.”

Mrs. Onassis had a very unusual life, distinctly American yet sophisticated and worldly. Fate placed her in an arena and she took to it the same way Monroe took to the camera. It gave her great prominence and privilege. She managed it in the public eye by staying out of the public (political) discourse. She then lived a respectable life and wielded great influence when she wished to. She also lived in a style and manner that pleased her first, including her final, private relationship with a man who had a wife who resided just across the park. This arrangement was treated the way it should have been treated: as private business. However, it wasn’t really private because it was well known publicly. But what Mrs. Onassis was able to do by living with it as she did, was to teach us all a lesson in dignity, respect, and reality.

For the other side of that paradise, however, read Peter Evans’s Nemesis. This too, is life.
Returning: It was interesting yesterday to learn how these personalities command interest among women many of whom are thoughtful, creative, industrious leaders themselves. Marilyn and Jackie are almost a half century away from us historically but the sheer power of their personalities remain as anchors in our stormy seas.

Among those attending: Andrea Dowd, Anne Ellington, Barbara Clancy, Barbara Dixon, Barbara Regna, Bonnie Comely, Christine De Lisle, Christine Schott, Elizabeth Stribling, Emma Snowdon Jones, Ginny Butters, Jill Johnson, Judith Agisim, Keri Ingvarsson, Kick Kennedy, Lauren Lawrence, Lee Fryd, Lisa McCarthy, Maggie Norris, Margo Langenberg, Marta Michaud, Melissa Morris, Mia Morgan, Michèle Gerber Klein, Mitzi Perdue, Olivia Langston, Pat Attoe, Patricia Burnham, Renee Lucas, Sharon Bush, Sharon Handler, Stephanie Stokes, Sydney Masters, Alexis Fedor, Gail Karr, Wendy Lerman, Viva Bhogaita.
Barbara Clancy and Ginny Butters.
Christine de Lisle. Elizabeth Stribling.
Viva Bhogaita and Lisa McCarthy.
Stephanie Stokes and Jeanne Lawrence.
Barbara Dixon. Margo Langenberg and Michele Gerber Klein.
Kick Kennedy, Gail Karr, and Christine Schott.
Lisa Wolf and Andrea Dowd. Mitzi Perdue.
Roger Webster and Wendy Lerman.
Sharon Bush and Bonnie Comley. Sydney Masters.
Olivia Langston and Renee Lucas.
Mia Morgan and Patty Lynch.
Michele Gerber Klein and Maggie Norris.
Roger Webster and Emma Snowdon Jones. Anne Akers.
Kick Kennedy and Pamela Keogh.
Sharon Marantz-Walsh, Scarlett Pildes and Anne Ellington.
Lauren Lawrence. Melissa Morris, Lee Fryd, and Barbara Regna.
Sharon Bush, Luanne Sampson, and Pamela Keogh.
Jeanne Lawrence and Sharon Handler.
Joey Hutchins, Megan Ward, and Keri Ingvarsson.
Bonnie Pressman. Pat Attoe.
Viva Bhogaita, Gail Karr, and Luanne Sampson.
Ann Watt and Alexis Fedor.
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Photographs by ANN WATT.
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