Wednesday, May 29, 2013

None other than

Waiting for the bus. 2:30 PM. Photo: Jeffrey Hirsch.
Wednesday, May 29, 2013. Rainy day, yesterday in New York. Temperatures in the high 50s. Foggy at night. Very warm weather forecast for today and tomorrow.

Monday’s Diary about Truman Capote brought a number of interesting emails about the man. This one that I received yesterday from Jonathan Marder, the New York public relations consultant, adds an interesting postscript to the man’s life which I re-print here with his permission:

Dear David,

In the 1990s, when I went to work for Random House, there were still many employees who had worked with Truman Capote, most importantly editor Joe Fox.Truman was part of the Random House legend. Bennett Cerf, the founder, was long gone but his widow, Phyllis, was still around and she was protective of her place as Truman’s friend and champion.

Katherine Graham and Truman Capote.
One of the first projectsassigned me by the publisher, the brilliant Harold Evans, was the launch of the Truman Capote Literary Trust. The rights to Truman’s work has been carefully attended by his lawyer and literary executor, Alan Schwartz. When Truman passed, his companion, Jack Dunphy, was still alive. Truman’s will stipulated that Jack would receive an annuity but not the principal. This was to go to create an annual award for American Literary Criticism in memory of Truman’s mentor (and one time lover) Newton Arvin, the brilliant expert on Hawthorne and Melville who had taught at Smith College. Arvin had been ruined by a scandal that revealed his homosexuality in 1960 (and Smith College, where he taught for 38 years, did nothing to help him).

We proposed an actual "Breakfast at Tiffany’s" to announce the trust and the award which would be the largest in American Literary Criticism. Eleanor Lambert helped, as did Fernanda Gilligan(also old friends of Truman’s like Leo Lerman). Joanna Carson generously lent some of Truman's things including his credit card, scarves, pens, and letters. Tiffany displayed them in their second floor vitrines. The guest list was remarkable. We asked many of Truman’s friends, even those who had deserted him (this prompted a particularly nasty phone call from Jerry Zipkin). Authors came of course. So did actors and actresses — Patricia Neal, Mary Tyler Moore and Robert Wolders among them.

Katherine Graham and Richard Avedon both agreed to speak. Avedon was witty and his impersonation of Truman was fabulously funny. But it was Kay Graham who was profound. She spoke of how Truman made her guest of honor at his Black and White Ball. She talked about how much fun he was. Then she spoke directly to the drugs and alcohol that made her stop speaking to him. Finally she praised his talent as an author and how that achievement rendered everything else unimportant. Kay Graham had understood him as an artist, she had the largeness of vision to dismisses the folly of much of his private life. She was a great lady because she appreciated him and not visa versa. It was a profound pronouncement on the importance of art.I’ve always wished I‘d had a copy of that speech. — J

Me and Lillian Sidney at a Debbie booksigning in Los Angeles in 1988.
A surprise for a lot of NYSD readers was learning that the woman who played Liberace’s mother Frances in the HBO production of Stephen Soderbergh’s “Behind the Candlelabra” was none other than Debbie Reynolds. It wasn’t that she wasn’t listed in the cast credits, because she was. Or that there hadn’t been previous publicity on it because there was. It was that the performance was so “real” that it almost seemed as if it were indeed, Liberace’s real mother.

The performance which was brilliant in even the classical sense, reminded me of Lillian Burns Sidney who was Debbie’s mentor and lifelong supporter of her talent.

Lillian had been the head acting coach at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer from 1938 through 1952 when Mr. Mayer himself occupied the mogul’s suite in the Thalberg Building, and was the veritable King of Hollywood.

Lillian was a tiny woman, no more than 4’11” and standing (always) erect. She bore a natural air of distinction in her presence. She was always smartly dressed, poised; a forthright, plain spoken, right-thinking woman who loved the “picture business,” as it was called, and all kinds of the creative talent that went into it. Especially actors, writers and directors.

In her position during her time at Metro – from 1938 until 1952 when Louis B. Mayer resigned – Lillian was the highest paid non-actress on the lot earning more than $100,000 a year (or several million in today’s dollars) in the industry in the 1940s.

She was the woman who decided who among the contract players would get the star treatment. And who wouldn’t. She didn’t take her job lightly. She was very sophisticated in all aspects of theatre and films – as well as opera and the classics (she read from Shakespeare’s portfolio every night before she went to sleep). And she saw everything. After all, she’d say, “the camera doesn’t lie” so truth is everything.

Debbie, circa 1950 in the office of Lillian Burns Sidney on the MGM lot.
Lillian Burns Sidney, Hollywood, Circa 1947.
Her relationship with Debbie Reynolds began when the teenage Debbie went from Warners over to MGM as a contract player, a starlet as it were. Debbie was sixteen or seventeen. In those days, the studios educated their oontract people with a regimen that impressed discipline and commitment and focus . They were schooled in not only the arts, but in terms of diction, dancing, walking, talking, smiling, singing; etiquette as well as learning, to maintain that “star’s” image at all times (while in public). Even hour a day with the photographer was required to get that million dollar smile down to a science. The camera was king.

I was introduced to Debbie after being vetted by Lillian, to write what is now her previous memoir (Debbie, My Life; William Morrow 1988). Lillian and I had met in a circuitous way – the road that writers are often on while pursuing a project. I sent her some “samples” of my writing to consider me for the job. One was the story of “Sudden Death” that I’ve since published on these pages. It was that story that “got” to Lillian, who read everything as if she were witnessing it personally on the screen.

That was twenty-five and six and seven years ago. Debbie was then enjoying her 40th year in the entertainment/film/television business that used to be known as Show Business. Now she’s a senior veteran. Considering the length of her film career, she’s worked with many of the greatest film directors (and stars) of the past eight decades. I don’t think there is anyone living who can make that claim, with the exception possibly of Angela Lansbury who continues to take on new work. Of all the stars on the M-G-M roster who were developed by the studio, Debbie Reynolds remains the sole survivor, however.

I mention Lillian Sidney because I was thinking of her Sunday night while watching Debbie’s performance in the Soderbergh/Liberace film. Debbie was like her star child, her talented daughter. The two women always discussed Debbie’s work. Lillian was a keen advisor when it came to creative work. Watching Debbie, I was thinking how Lillian would have been very proud of her student/daughter’s achievement in the role. Truth.

Lillian Burns Sidney died in 1998 in her ninety-fifth year. She was a remarkable woman, a great friend, and a great character and loving teacher. There is a series of video interviews with her now on YouTube. They were done when she was in her late 80s or early 90s. The interviewer focused on her career in, and observations of, the American films made in the age of the Studio system. Lillian was one of a kind, an angel to many of us including her Debbi-la – as she referred to her in moments of fond memory.

If you should watch, bear in mind this is a woman who witnessed most of the great stage and film talent of the 20th century, a little girl from Chicago (she pronounced it Chi-caw go) who became one of the most influential women in the American film industry in its so-called Golden Age. Lillian, our Lillian ...

Contact DPC here.