November, 1973: I was taking the train to Long Island to Lloyd’s Neck.
This time it was to meet my friends Phil Austin, Phil Proctor, David Ossman and Peter Bergman — The Firesign Theatre. As we were leaving Manhattan the papers were telling us that the Vietcong and Saigon forces were battling it out in open warfare!
So much for the Paris Accords!
And what we didn’t know but would soon learn was that Donald DeFreeze, calling himself General Cinque, was forming the Symbionese Liberation Army that would go on to kidnap Patricia Hearst, the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst who was at one time called “the richest man in the world.”
But riding on the Long Island Railroad I didn’t know about any of this. Like most people I was becoming numb to news about the Vietnam War although the Hearst kidnapping was so out of the ordinary that eventually that was a shock! It was a bigger shock when Pattie Hearst joined up with her kidnappers! It was as unbelievable as the plot of a B movie! But it was real!
I’d learn about all that later.
I was going to Lloyd’s Neck and then in a taxi to Lloyd’s Harbor where my Firesign buddies were staying at Castle Eastfair, the home of inventor/entrepreneur Sherman Fairchild who at one time had founded over 70 companies.
I was there to work with Firesign making a movie, and as we drove through the neighborhood I realized I was in Jay Gatsby country.
We arrived at the front of the property and there was a waiting open gate.
There was a long narrow road but no sign of a house. Finally, after making a wide turn there it was, Castle Eastfair!
This was a very impressive and imposing property and I had trouble thinking of my maniac friends being here. For anything!
To put it delicately, they were somewhat irreverent.
They had become so popular that they had eventually been called by Entertainment Weekly among the “Thirty Greatest Comedy Acts of All Time,” had given a sold out concert in Carnegie Hall, and finally in 2005, the US Library of Congress added their album Don’t Crush That Dwarf Hand Me the Pliers to the National Recording Registry calling them “the Beatles of Comedy.”
The awards would be later after they’d broken up, but in 1973 they were still very popular.
On one of the albums Phil Austin had created the character Nick Danger, Private Third Eye, a satirical takeoff of the macho private detectives on the weekly mystery radio shows of the 1940s and ’50s. He, Ed Rush (who I’ve previously written about as the author of the Plastic Jesus song) and my brother used to meet in the bedroom my brother and I shared and record improvised “celebrity interviews” from New York’s famous (fictitious) Celebrity Room! One of those “famous” celebrities was the exquisite and exotic Italian movie goddess, Gina Lotsabazuma!
They were teenage boys!
So, at Castle Eastfair we were shooting a little movie.
I was too busy doing everything from makeup to set dressing and art directing to draw much of anything. I don’t know where our supposed host Sherman Fairchild was hiding as I never saw him!
I’d gotten another little taste of filmmaking again and I liked it! I hadn’t done any since UCLA days and hadn’t realized that I missed it!
So I was back in Manhattan and catching up on deadlines. Phil Proctor had told me they were preparing a new recording with Columbia to be released the following year.
As it turned out, when it was getting ready to be marketed I got a call from Jon Berg, the Art Director of Columbia/CBS Records, asking me to come to the office. He wanted me to do the art for the album. Coincidentally, my cousin Adrienne Albert had recorded a solo conducted by Igor Stravinsky and married Stravinsky’s producer, John McClure.
My brother, an entertainment lawyer, had done legal work for Firesign and his name appeared on the album credits. He happened to be in Manhattan on a quick business trip and Jon told me that my brother was up on the executive floor and that they wanted me to meet them up there. Leaning closer he asked me if this was a family takeover?
So this is the album we all did:
The Giant Rat of Sumatra.
And at the same time, my old friend, Joyce Burrell-McDowell, had come to New York on business as a buyer now for I. Magnin in San Francisco. I’d known her since the summer vacation of my senior year in high school when I’d gotten a summer job to work in the art department of a chic women’s store, Rodder’s Mademoiselle, owned by friends of my parents.
It was Fresno California’s version of Bendel’s and for a mid-size city in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley was surprisingly fashionable with Parisian designers represented and very high end gifts and jewelry. The store had its own fashion illustrator and two people doing window display, Joyce and Faye, a very Bohemian free spirit who continually surprised us with changes of hair color! Joyce was the outwardly very level-headed opposite but only outwardly. Inwardly she had as raging a creative streak as Faye but on a very elegantly refined level.
She called and we agreed to meet for dinner and she said she had a surprise for me.
I picked her up at her hotel and was stunned when I saw her. She was a natural dirty blonde/light brown hair with lighter highlights but here she was in a white mink coat with her complexion as pale as a calla lily with bright Lucille Ball orange red hair. The amazing thing was that as dramatic and unusual as she looked, it was if she was born looking like that.
She told me that she had a friend with that coloring and she thought it was so attractive that she wanted to look like that.
She said that she invited the friend over and took her out into the garden where they set up a mirror. Looking at the friend, Joyce, in true color sunlight copied her friend‘s very pale redhead complexion adding appropriate pinky blush to emulate her friend‘s delicate subtle coloring. Then she bleached her light brown eyebrows and added a light brown tint to them with a lot of black mascara to cover her “pale” lashes. She’d dyed her hair first and VOILÀ! — a very believable natural redhead!
If only Faye could’ve seen her!
She had done something else that was much more elaborate! She had what I think is called a lantern jaw or possibly a Habsburg Jaw. In any event it was extremely prominent!
But she had had a complicated operation to change it and so my poor caricature didn’t make sense any more — except for her elegance!
We had a drink in the bar of her hotel and set out for Daly’s Dandelion, orchestra leader and music director Skitch Henderson’s restaurant on the Upper East Side. As we waited for a table we suddenly realized that we hadn’t gotten to the bank to get money. This was before the time that everyone had credit or debit cards. We finally sat at our table and as the suave waiter came over we pulled out all of our money and told him it was all we had and could he just order for us with the money we had?
It wasn’t embarrassing. Joyce was in a white mink coat and designer dress and I was wearing a black velvet suit with Gucci shoes.
The waiter nodded and smiled and after a bit came with delicious specialties. I looked at him and said “what about the tip?” He gave a wink and smiled.
The next day I got a call from my friend Carly Billings who was coming into town from Sag Harbor where she lived in a beautiful large Victorian house. She wanted to meet for coffee so I suggested Yellowfingers.
I’d met Carly as we were taking Silva Mind Control which is now renamed The Silva Method. I imagine the Control part disturbed people even though it was about controlling your own mind.
But Carly and I became good friends. She was the perfect classy old-style Manhattanite! She spoke with the refined accent of a Roosevelt and like so many real urbanite New Yorkers was born in Los Angeles! Like me!
We laughed about that a lot saying we were undercover!
Carly was really one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met in a lifetime of interesting people!
She was a very close friend of Richard Simon and his wife. He was the founder of Simon & Schuster along with M. Lincoln Schuster and when the Simons’ daughter was born they named her Carly after Carly Billings.
That Carly Simon!
Carly may have been her godmother — I’m not sure; but she told me that she thought that she was the first ever Carly because she was officially named Caroline but couldn’t say it when she was a baby and could only say Carly!
Her first husband was John F. Wharton, a prominent lawyer who had many theatrical and film clients. He was the co-executor of Cole Porter’s estate and the sole trustee of the Cole Porter Literary and Musical Property Trusts. Another of his clients was John Hay “Jock” Whitney who had bought Technicolor.
Carly told me that in the early thirties she and her husband were at Whitney’s for a dinner with the legendary theatrical designer, Robert Edmond Jones. Whitney brought up the subject of his purchase of Technicolor and was questioning how it might be demonstrated to be marketable for Hollywood producers. Carly and Jones started brainstorming right during dinner and became so enthusiastic that Whitney said “okay you two! Do it!”
So Carly and Robert Edmond Jones took a train to Los Angeles and worked for the whole trip. It was arranged that Kenneth Macgowan would be the experienced producer with Carly and Carly, with three writers, would refine the story she and Jones had worked on during their trip.
Jones had designed the sets and lighting to maximize color utilizing colored theatrical lighting. Natalie Kalmus, the ex wife of Technicolor founder Herbert Kalmus, was the color supervisor for every film in Technicolor.
She was very influential in the development of the process and just before filming was to begin came to the RKO studios to talk with Carly and Robert Edmond Jones to see how they were going to utilize her Technicolor! When Jones mentioned the colored theatrical lighting plan she shook her head and said it wouldn’t work and she wouldn’t allow it!
When she left Carly and Jones were devastated and also furious.
But they learned that as she was leaving the studio she’d been hit by a car and was hospitalized so they ignored her warnings and quickly got to work!
It’s considered to be the first film to fully use Technicolor and in the film there are three young singers — sisters. The Gumm Sisters also making their first film appearance. The youngest was only 12, Frances “Baby” Gumm, but she went on to make other movies.
They changed her name though to something with a little more glitz: