Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Diary Notes

Southern light on the Upper West Side. 4:10 PM. Photo: JH.
Tuesday, January 12, 2016. Grey and cold in the high 30s yesterday in New York, with snow showers moving in through late afternoon and mid-evening. The social calendar remains quiet and with my lunch canceled, I had some time for catch up reading.

Diary Notes. There are two publications I keep for years: The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. There are many others out there who do the same thing and for the same reason. I don’t have time to read everything I want to read when they arrive in the mail, so I save them, often folded back open to a specific piece I haven’t got to.
One wall of my "library."
Every weekend I try to cull back my library which I refer to as a “library” because it has practically taken over my humble abode, to the point where it’s either me or the books and magazines and newspapers. Newspapers go quickly – a week later. The magazines move more slowly but the aforementioned two remain. Piled high and thick in many a nook and cranny. Now with the web, it’s all there all the time, and on your desk. So gradually (and reluctantly) I let go some more back copies.

Gore Vidal et al. Reading an old (2009) New York Review issue open to a book of essays about Gore Vidal: “The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal,” edited by a man named Jay Parini who had a close literary relationship with Vidal.
Gore Vidal and Jay Parini in 2009.
After writing that sentence, I looked up Jay Parini – a name I wasn’t familiar with -- on Wikipedia. He is a distinguished writer, poet, scholar, novelist, professor and considered one of the “leading innovators in the genre of biographical fiction.” Which again serves to remind how little we know and how presumptuous we are in regards to our own knowledge and instincts. We often Don’t Know Anything.

The NYRB review of the book was written by another writer whose name was not known to me, Jonathan Raban. He is an excellent writer and very knowledgeable. Reading Raban’s review of Parini’s edited Vidal’s collections of essays, I was reminded again and again of how complex was his thinking, as well as his ability to amaze and amuse.  His prevailing attitude was one of deep pessimism and little tolerance, at least intellectually, for many people, but his assessments, perceptions and intuitiveness remain on the money as much today as they were thirty or forty years ago.
Gore Vidal around the time I met him (1981).
I read Vidal as a writer, but I also read him as a person. Who is this man, what motivates him, what is he really like? I met him once, very briefly in the early 1980s at a Christmas party given by Sandy Gallin at his hilltop mansion in Beverly Hills. That year, Gallin had -- greeting guests as they arrived at the entrance court -- Dolly Parton, dressed as Santa Claus, all in red, white and oooh.

Gallin was a very successful and prominent talent manager and producer. Parton was a client. That was a big time Hollywood party. I didn’t know Mr. Gallin (I don’t think I've ever met him to this day), but I was invited through a mutual friend because it was a big party.
Sandy Gallin and Dolly Parton.
When we coincidentally happened to be in the same spot in the room, I introduced myself to Mr. Vidal and asked him a political question about some incursion the US was involved in somewhere in the world at the time. This had to be in the early 1980s when Ronald Reagan was president.

His response to my question was measured, and brief, and it was clear that he wanted to go say hello to someone across the room (in other words he was probably thinking: who is this guy?). So his reply was perfunctory, and actually sounded quite tolerant of the whole military establishment that he always criticized as he criticized our President. Oh.
Vidal greets then-President elect John F. Kennedy in December 1960.
Then he deftly moved on, across the room to talk to a much younger man, Paul Jabara, a singer-songwriter who had written a hit disco song of the moment for Donna Summer (“The Last Dance”).  Jabara was obviously a friend of Vidal’s. Or a familiar acquaintance, as friendships often are in Hollywood and the world of celebrity; all of which which provided an insight for me into Gore Vidal that was less than intellectual; meaning he could “get down.” In that way he was like so many other men in Hollywood, gay or straight: out to get laid.

I wasn’t disappointed that I had not been able to engage Vidal in conversation. I knew I had interrupted his party intentions.
Donna Summer with with Paul Jabara and her Grammy for "Last Dance."
I later met Howard Austen who was his life partner. Howard was a friendly man, unpretentious and a gentleman. There was none of the snob that Vidal could imply. He didn’t seem the intellectual match for Vidal either, but they were very close. Howard was like a good wife running the household and keeping the clamoring crowd from the door, although both men liked socializing. Vidal claimed publicly more than once that he and Howard were not lovers. Whatever it was about him, Howard was the most important person in Gore Vidal’s daily life which, as we grow older, becomes The Life.
Howard Austen on the left, with Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman, Gore and company at the Newman's in Connecticut.
Vidal also liked the connections that Howard could continue and maintain for him socially. They both liked knowing people and especially famous people. I met Howard Austen first at Jean Howard’s house at 2000 Coldwater Canyon. Jean was no intellectual either but she had a light but smoldering charm, and held a certain favorable place in the social strata of Hollywood.

She was a great hostess, and good company. She knew the score, knew where the bodies were buried, loved a good laugh, and had many famous and talented friends. She once said that living and working in Hollywood was like walking through smoke – you never knew what – or who – was ahead of you or behind.
Jean with her chihuahua in 1938.
She was born Ernestine Mahoney in Longview, Texas in 1910. Her father was a traveling salesman and her mother died at a young age of a morphine addiction. Ernestine, now Jean had started out as a show girl in the (final) “Ziegfeld Follies of 1931.” The show was not a hit but she caught the eye of Louis B. Mayer, the mogul of M-G-M who arranged for her to travel to Paris where he was traveling with his wife. Mayer who wanted to divorce his wife and marry Jean, was so besotted that when Jean told him during that trip she “couldn’t” marry him, he threatened to throw himself out a window in her hotel room. 
Jean was soon the society darling of the film set as well as the international set through her friendships with Cole Porter, Noel Coward and Fulco Verdura. In the mid-1930s she married Charlie Feldman, a dynamic talent agent. Louis Mayer was so angry about the marriage that he banned Feldman from the MGM Lot, but the couple were very popular in the film colony. The Feldmans divorced in the 40s, and Jean went off for a time with a well known woman in her set. That partnership ended reportedly when the other woman went off with Marlene Dietrich.
Jean Howard and Cole Porter in Athens, Greece.
Frank Merlo, Elia Kazan, Tennessee Williams, and Charles Feldman.
Jean’s hacienda style house in Coldwater that she and Feldman bought new in 1936, was first decorated by Lady Mendl, Elsie de Wolfe and became a popular destination for the movie stars as well as café society people from New York. In 1960, on the night of the Democratic convention in Los Angeles when John F. Kennedy was nominated for President, Jean had a party to celebrate his nomination with friends, including the candidate himself who was a late night visitor after everybody had gone home.
John F. Kennedy at the 1960 Democratic National Convention.
Jean's dining room in the house on Coldwater where she hosted JFK the night of the Democratic National Convention. The dining room table was left to her by Cole Porter.
A well oiled Richard Burton accompanies Judy Garland at a party at Jean's house. Charlie Feldman dancing with Marilyn.
Later in her life, in the 1980s, Jean, who had become a very talented photographer – begun as a hobby – published her first photo-memoir “Jean Howard’s Hollywood” which remains a quintessential archive of the community and its style mid-20th century.

She also had a longtime friendship with Ann Warner, the beautiful second wife of Jack Warner, the movie mogul. At the time, Warner suspected that his wife was having an affair. Which, evidently, she was. For some reason Warner came to believe that he was being cuckolded by Eddie Albert, a rising star in Hollywood. He had Albert blackballed in the industry.
Marlene Dietrich and Ann Warner, 1939.
Eddie Albert on the set of the Studio One TV production of George Orwell's 1984.
After that, Eddie Albert couldn’t get work. He went back to the New York theatre to survive for a few years. This matter was well known sotto voce in Hollywood at the time (circa late 40s, early 50s). Albert knew what he was being accused of but although he was an innocent man in this case, he couldn’t fight the head office.

Jean Howard and her husband Tony Santoro with their two adopted dogs. Jean was in her late 70s at the time of this photograph.
Ann Warner died at 82 in 1990. It was said that she left a small annuity to her friend Jean Howard so she could keep fresh flowers in her house all the time. 

Jean Howard died ten years later in 2000. She was survived by her husband Tony Santoro. She had met Tony one night in the 1970s in a café on Capri where Jean was staying with Mona Bismarck, the former Mrs. Harrison Williams. Jean had gone out for a cocktail with two men friends, both middle-aged and gay, both of whom were enthusing over the much younger guitarist, and making bets on who would get to take him home that night.

By the end of the evening, as Jean liked to tell the story with a smile, Jean informed her boys that she was taking the guitarist home. which she did, ... and eventually back to Beverly Hills where they married.

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