Monday, April 30, 2012

My kind of Saturday

Hat vendor on 74th and Broadway. 1:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Monday, April 30, 2012. A bright, sunny Spring days, weekend in New York.

I love Saturdays. It’s the day I don’t have obligations and commitments to meet. I avoid anything but maybe dinner with friends. I intend to start out the day early although it’s usually ten-thirty, eleven before I’m up and about.

As you may have read here before, I like to go over to the West Side (and to Zabar's). That part of town is thick weekend New York neighborhood. East End Avenue is wonderful but on Saturdays it’s almost suburban. Broadway between 74th and 86th or upwards, is New York on a Saturday.
Space shuttle Enterprise riding piggyback above the Hudson River (at approx . 90th Street) on Friday.
Other parts of town have other “atmospheres” and/or “attitudes,” but this strip of Manhattan real estate is still in the throes of neighborhood. It is basically the historic Jewish flavor that is now subtle yet still omnipresent. Zabar's is part of that but so are many of the businesses that line the thoroughfare. That influence translates for me as community. It is not religious at all. It is simply human.

There is memory here. Tradition. Broadway. Broadway on the Upper West Side.  The New York where dreams were realized. For me it’s restorative. It’s the towniness of New York life, and it’s about ordinary life.

There are bookstalls on both corners of 80th. One in front of Zabar's and one south, I bought two books, one from each: Frank Langella’s Dropped Names (which I’ve read and written about here). This is for a friend. Then on the next stall I found Lives and Letters by Robert Gottlieb.
Crossing Broadway and 84th.
Mr. Gottlieb is a famous editor here in New York. Editors are a different breed of cat. Some of them become celebrities, etc., but the magnet is always the written word. At least in the beginning. The greats (and there are a few of them out there right now) never lose the pull. These men and women are really smart in a very special way. They love writing – the really good editors, that is. And therefore they love writers.

Click to order Lives and Letters.
In the public mind Gottlieb is a kind of rocket-age Max Perkins -- now a legend but a most productive editor of his times. These are men and women who are naturally drawn to and working in a world of culture and civilization. It exists as a real and a quasi-industry here in New York; the only one of its kind.

Gottlieb is also a very engaging writer with myriad interests that are either right up my alley or interesting to learn about. I knew that already. I don’t know him, have never met him. I don’t know any of these people, these editors, incidentally, so as my Brooklyn-born and bred, Irish-American father used to say, I’m “talking through my hat." But they are figures of an aspiring writer’s imagination.

So that’s why I bought the book on the table in front of Zabar's:  just to see What Else.

Back at my apartment I opened it immediately. Saturday afternoon I can do what I want; no schedule. I’m a compulsive reader who often feels he shouldn’t be reading what he’s reading but instead reading what he needs to read to prepare for what he must write. That sort of head thing.

The first chapter was about Tallulah Bankhead. You have to be a certain age or a movie buff to know who Tallulah was. If you’re not, find out: Tallulah knew something you don’t know.
Tallulah Bankhead.
I remember her from when I was a kid. She had a voice --  way down there (“dahling…”), and if she were contemporary today, you’d think it was booze and cigarettes and maybe some of the other recreational drug mixes. Now, at this late age, I realize that that’s what Tallulah was up to all along. She was a character 24/7, fortified and prevailing, drugs, booze, ciggies and all -- which is why she was so famous. And clever. She liked the attention.

Then came Sarah Bernhardt. I’ve read very little about Bernhardt. Never interested. But Tallulah was so interesting I wondered what Bernhardt had. I won’t spoil it with the details but she was obviously a riveting character just to behold. And hear. A motherless child. My mother had been a motherless child after an early age. It never left her. It never left Bernhardt either. The sheer of being seen and being heard was indefatigable. Again, attention.
Sarah Bernhardt as Cleopatra 1891.
And then came Douglas Fairbanks Sr.  Again, attention. (He did not like being Fairbanks Sr. There was only one, he would say in irritated explanation). The name he gave his only son annoyed him. A powerful personality, the greatest star of silent films. That’s who we are; full of mistakes and racing for triumphs.

Douglas Fairbanks Sr.
There were more I read right away. I had to stop at some point. Don’t bother with me about this; buy the book. It will keep you thinking, laughing, and amazed. Diaghilev, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Margot Fonteyn, Isadora Duncan. Langella’s alluring book is a kind of memoir. Gottlieb’s is similar but not a memoir; personal only in terms of intellectual interest, including that of a fan who knows.

Books and books. Last week I had lunch with Pat Schoenfeld who has been very busy lately out at booksignings and promoting the memoir of her late husband Gerald Schoenfeld. Mr. Broadway is the title and That Man on the cover is the immortal Al Hirschfeld’s portrait of him.

In the last twenty years I’ve got to know Jerry Schoenfeld, getting around as I do, and also because he frequently lunched at Michael’s. He was a very friendly fellow, droll and mensch-y, although I knew he was a very shrewd lawyer and businessman who with a man named Bernie Jacobs, ran the Shubert  Organization for almost forty years (not counting his years when he worked for JJ Shubert and then Lawrence Shubert Lawrence.
DPC and Pat Schoenfeld at lunch last week at Michael's.
I first knew of Jerry when I was a kid aspiring (wrong word/right idea) actor and working at Sardi’s restaurant in a part time job – 11 to 2 on matinee days (Wednesday and Saturday) and 5 to 8 Monday through Fridays.

Sardi’s was then, as it had been for decades, the center of the world of Broadway. Everybody who was anybody came through its door -- every star, aspiring, headlining, former, future; playwrights, writers, tycoons interested in shows (or actresses or actors); lawyers, agents, their girls, their wives, their secret boyfriends; press agents, movie stars, movie producers, movie directors, journalists (the New York Times was next door). It was a hub of the theatre world.

Click to order Mr. Broadway.
They all came to to Sardi’s daily. As did, when I was there, these two guys: Bernie Jacobs and Jerry Schoenfeld. Always along with a tall blond ruddy faced man named Lawrence Shubert Lawrence. Lawrence Shubert Lawrence (no one every referred to him as anything but…) was the head of the Shubert Theaters empire, a position he inherited when the last of the Shuberts -- John, died in 1962.

I knew nothing about any of them except that Lawrence was the head of the Shubert Theaters and Schoenfeld and Jacobs were the company lawyers at the time and always following him around. I learned from reading the book that it was Jerry’s idea to put Lawrence in as president of the organization after his uncle died. It turned out to be a fateful decision, for soon after he was installed, they learned that Lawrence was first and foremost and always at the end of the day, a drunk. Plus he was a man with a lot of ego and legal authority, and not a clue otherwise.

“Lawrence began each day at home in New Jersey with stingers – brandy and creme de menthe – and then showed up at Sardi’s Restaurant ... and continued drinking,” Schoenfeld writes.

I’d see the trio come in in the late afternoon just before the dinner hour. They would always go directly upstairs. I learned in the book all these years later that they went upstairs (which was Siberia, mainly for the tourists they didn’t have room for downstairs) because Lawrence had a phone installed so he could talk and drink at the same time.
Young Jerry Schoenfeld, Young (but older than Jerry) Bernie Jacobs, and Jerry's brother, Irving Schoenfeld. The Founders of the Empire, the brothers, Lee and J. J. Shubert.
That routine was going before I worked at Sardi’s and quite a few years after I left -- until Schoenfeld and his partner Bernie Jacobs figured out how to get Lawrence out of the way, and get on with the business of managing theaters and Broadway and Show Business, all of which is told by Jerry in this book.

The Shuberts were brothers, originally from Syracuse (Rodgers and Hart wrote a musical score for a show inspired by them – “The Boys From Syracuse:”). They were tough and rough and the most successful legitimate theater owners in America during the Golden Age of Broadway – the first half of the 20th century.

Jerry Schoenfeld’s book is a memoir, a treasure of history and details for those of us who love the Show Business aspect of theater. It is also a textbook for any lawyer who ever thought that theatre was a world to pursue. It is an education not only in Show Business but in the life around it. I knew Jerry Schoenfeld loved his business. In the book he shows me why.
Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Mr. Schoenfeld.
Al Hirschfeld's portrait of one of the greatest teams in the history of Broadway at the time each was having a theatre named after himself.
He never lost that initial awe of the “magic” of the theater business and its creative professionals. He “fell” into it accidentally as a young lawyer at the beginning of his work life, and he rose to the occasion, so that by the end of his life – which came suddenly, and precisely right after he’d finished writing this book – he’d taken on the mantle of the Shuberts himself.

There was another partner too; the primary partner – his wife Pat. They met when she was still in college and he was starting out. It was one of those marriages where she had her own interests but like her husband, but also grew up, it turned out, in the world of the theatre. They were a team.

His job was his world and it became Pat’s too. She was the steadying force and always supportive despite his chronic and myriad doubts, because they shared a natural curiosity and both developed a professional’s interest, You will too when you read the book.
Jerry and Pat Schoenfeld at Lincoln Center. The play's the thing ... but it always needs a theater ...

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