Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Intimate conversations

The anticipation. 1:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Wednesday, April 23, 2014. Another bright sunny day in New York, with the lightest spritz from time to time in the late afternoon and into mid-evening. The pears are even more pronounced and to me it’s like a reward for the spirit after the hard cold winter.

Last night I went to see Liz Smith interview Frank Rich and Alex Witchel at the Cosmopolitan Club on East 65 and 66th Streets. Billed as “An intimate evening of conversation” moderated by Liz, that is exactly what it was. Or as intimate as two adults/writers are going to get in a room of a hundred people.

Liz has been conducting these interviews (last year I think it was Whoopi Goldberg) every year to benefit Maria Droste Counseling Services.

Founded by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd 32 years ago and named for a Good Shepherd sister who was renowned for her ability to console those who came to her in pain. The Mission of the Counseling Services is to provide affordable therapy. Last night’s benefit raised funds that will augment that mission. Elizabeth Peabody, who works at the Services, organized this annual benefit and produces it each year.
Liz and Bette in 2012.
Liz and Whoopi in 2013.
This was the first of these interviews that I’ve attended. Guests were provided with tables and chairs, as you can see, and hors d’oeuvres (excellent) were passed along with wine, sparkling water, etc. It was a middle-to-older crowd, not surprisingly, many of whom know each other, perhaps through the club, or professionally, or socially. I saw many faces that I see when I am out and about, or at dinner or lunch, or a culture event. It’s kind of a neighborhood of mutual interest and curiosity. There was also a center table of Barbara Walters, Peter Brown, Marie Brenner and Ernie Pomerantz, Suzanne Goodson, Lesley Stahl and Aaron Latham, all close acquaintances or friends of the three conversers.

For me it was somewhat of a Proustian moment in that last night was the first time I’d crossed the threshold of the Cosmopolitan Club since the day I changed my life at age 23 and got married, in October 1964. The Cos Club is mainly a private woman’s club where a lot of wedding receptions and dinners are still held. I remember the day very well, of course, from morning (early) to night (late) in Nassau, the Bahamas. The first and only time I was there also. We were divorced nine years later, although amongst all my memories of that day and that place, it was a very major step into grown-up life -- no matter how it looked to the real grownups around us. All these years later she and I remain in fairly close communication, and on a similar level of “intimacy” that we experienced when we were together. There is no better alternative, for which I’m grateful.
Last night at the Cosmopolitan Club for “An intimate evening of conversation” to benefit Maria Droste Counseling Services.
So, there was that. Even the colors of the room seemed to jog my memory of that far off moment. I was far more relaxed in the room last night, however.

The Interview. Liz told the guests that the “theme” of these interviews, following the mission of the Maria Droste Counseling Services, was “resilience.” A good one for all of us.

Frank Rich, if you don’t know out there in cyber-land, made his name in New York when he was the Drama Critic for the New York Times from 1980 to 1993. The Drama Critic for the New York Times has been a very powerful position in theatre, culture and the arts for the past seventy or eighty years, and therefore not a voice in the wild.
Frank Rich, Alex Witchel, and Liz Smith listen while Elizabeth Peabody opens the evening for the conversation.
A bad review in the Times could, probably still can kill a show (but not always), and not a few people (producers/theater owners, etc.) felt killed by Frank Rich’s words at one time or another. I always found his reviews reasonable and kind, unless it was impossible; and literate and intelligent. He didn’t take swipes at people and clearly he was on the side of the talent (except when he couldn’t see the side). Others accused him of being a Liberal politically. As if it mattered. Also, it’s just his opinion.

Away from his keyboard, he is a genial quiet-spoken fellow, often with a ready smile. Yet David Merrick, perhaps the most famous producer of the 1960s Broadway, publicly felt Frank Rich was very unfair, and he chastised him whenever he could (and also used Rich’s “praising phrases” in his newspaper ads whenever he could).

And then he left. When Rich left the Drama Desk he moved over to the Op-Ed page for the next decade and a half, lending a political analysis to his columns. Barbara Walters was the one who asked from the audience what it was like to leave the Times: did he consider how his life would change, that he would no longer have that gilded platform (my words not Walters’) of “journalistic distinction” (again, my words).
Liz asks Alex Witchel about her memoir and her experience of the loss of her mother, and how Witchel handled it ...
No, he explained that he felt it was time. He’d been thinking about it for a long time. He could tell by his waning interest in his task. He was turning sixty and he sensibly realized there was more unexplored out there. To change was his “resilience.” To continue their work – Rich and Witchel – is their resilience.

Both Rich and Alex Witchel have written memoirs and Liz used them to ask them about their marriage. They were married in 1991 and she was working at the times as a journalist also. Somewhere along the line of her career she did interviews and features about. I specifically recall a very funny review of taking her mother to a weekend at the brand new Alexis Stewart (daughter of Martha) motel in the Hamptons. I recall the design/decor was “minimal.”

They raised two sons from his first marriage (shared custody), they both work at home (they email instead of phone or interrupt). So they spend a great deal of time together. Liz asked Witchel about the sorrow of losing her mother of dementia  at 71, and a younger sister who died of breast cancer leaving two sons, 8 and 4; and how she dealt with it. She responded that although these were very sad times for her, she believed that we all have these very rough times in our lives, and it’s important to know that it’s part of everyone’s experience; we are not alone in them.

And so it turned out to be what was promised. Rich, Witchel and Liz Smith have known each other for a long time, so the conversation had a “private” quality to it, always most interesting to listen to and perceive.  This is New York.
Photos from the walk home: I'm still dazzled by the flowering pears beautifying the town of bricks, glass, stone, steel and mortar. Then along Lexington at 72nd Peter Elliot's window is featuring the Spring look for the men in the nabe (that nabe).

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