Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Good time to stay close to home

Looking east from Washington Street and Morris. 2:00 PM. Photo: JH.
Tuesday, February 16, 2016.  President’s Day Weekend. Sunny and very cold (single digits) until yesterday afternoon when the clouds rolled in, the snow began to fall, the temperature rose and by late evening it had turned to rain. Good time to stay close to home.
Linda Fairstein took a break from her writer's lair to catch her view of the neighborhood (Carl Schurz Park and the East River looking east to Queens) through the light fog and snow falling at 5:15 PM yesterday.
Went on Sunday afternoon to see “Cabin In the Sky,” the Encores production at New York City Center afternoon. Encores are all wonderful productions. George Balanchine directed the original (music by Vernon Duke, lyrics by John LaTouche).  Ethel Waters starred in the original and introduced “Takin’ A Chance On Love” and “Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe ...” It opened on October 25, 1940 and ran for 156 performances, a little more than four months. But Metro made it into a movie musical with Ethel Waters and Lena Horne and a great cast and directed by Vincente Minnelli. It was Minnelli’s first movie direction assignment. It’s not a great show but full of great energy, great performances by everyone including the chorus singers and dancers. Great voices, great dancing. It was an exponent of “Porgy and Bess.” It didn’t quite reach those heights but was pure pleasure, performed by a great cast, every single one of them. The audience loved it too.
The chorus of "Cabin" taking their bows Sunday afternoon at the New York City Center Theater.
The cast of characters and the chorus taking their final bows at Sunday's matinee of Encore's production of "The Cabin In the Sky."
Over the weekend, I finished the Gore Vidal biography, “Empire of Self” written by Jay Parini, a writer who had developed a deep literary friendship with Vidal over the years. He was not Gore’s first choice: there were two others, one written and one not; but somewhere along the line when Gore still had his wits about him (and not lost in some bottle of booze), he realized this guy would be perfect. And he was. Because it’s totally biographical but told by a man who knew him well through experience, besides through archives and interviews.

Click to order Empire of Self.
Parini shows you all sides of this complicated thinker, but he is sympathetic. Their relationship had developed through professional channels into a real friendship, and he likes him. The Gore he portrays is easy to like. And easy to get annoyed with, and easy to laugh at and laugh with. Huge energy.  A kind of snotty but very smart guy who underneath it all was really a very kind, sensitive man who could dance along so spritely yet with his demons barely concealed from view.

As I got close to the end I realized that Parini had taken me through the entire life of the man in such a way that I could relate to his physical presence as well as the world in which he grew up and matured in. I was watching him as well as reading about him.

He was a half generation older than I  — born in 1925 — but I am old enough to have siblings his age and am well aware of the society and socio-economic plateau that he grew up on. He came to adulthood during  the Second World War and came to fame as the United States, victors in the war, came to world power both culturally and politically. But I must warn you: as you get very close to the end of his life (and the book) you find yourself very depressed by his ending.  You see that the booze was the culprit but of course it’s not really. It’s life and how it’s handled with all the baggage that we arrive with and carry throughout the journey.
Howard Austen, Paul Newman (on the lap of Gore Vidal) with Joanne Woodward taking it all in while staying with the Newmans in Connecticut.
He was a very intelligent man – as anyone knows who’s read him or heard him speak, with a sensitive intelligence so he could be enlightened by his own perceptions. But he was a sad man also. No one’s fault really. You could “blame” his mother, but she had her burdens to bear too (he no doubt being a major one of them). It’s just the way it worked out. He did have love in his life, and he did love. Although he made a point of stating several times that he and his longtime companion/life partner Howard Austen were never lovers, he admitted late in life, after Howard was gone, that Howard was the one person he loved. That was a very lucky thing, for him.

I loved this book for all of its values including entertainment and the well-tailored gossip that colors the rooms and the people passing through them. It’s a portrait of a time and place. It was a luxe life well lived, and full of stimulations. He loved his fame and fortune, and was a star-fucker, like so many who get out to Hollywood or get involved in the big time media-wise. But he also had a lot of friends who were not on that comet, and he kept them. He liked people, underneath his acerbic comments. He loved his literary life. He loved to act and appeared in several films and documentaries.
Vidal in his 70s.
He was self-educated, never having gone to college and also being a terrible student in school. Proof positive about not needing an institutional education to succeed in life. His essays really established him as an intellectual writer as well as an historian al fresco. He worked all the time. All the time. Steady. Disciplined, no matter the alcohol consumption the night before. He lived well and luxuriously in Rome, in Ravello, in New York and in Hollywood, traveling frequently to destinations all over the world. And wrote, and gave lectures and interviews. The mind was constantly refueling. And as the years passed, time moved more quickly. You’re with him through all his adventures and successes (as well as his disappointments and bad reviews that came his way at times). The final years were the opposite of all that building and growing and learning. As he aged into his eighties, he handled much of the experience by taking refuge in the bottle. The disappointments were part of the package too.  A brilliant portrait of a brilliant life, but real.

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