From "Hollywood Spot Light, The Readers Digest, April, 1946"
ĎEdna Ferber was invited to a stu-
dio to see a film that had been made
from one of her manuscripts. "Itís a
good picture," she said afterward, "but
it isnít my story. I wonder if youíll let
me buy my story back?" The movie magnates finally agreed
to sell it back. "But," they said, "youíve
got to give us an option on the movie
rights." Walter Winchell
The hotel where my father worked, the year I was born, was the Excelsior Grand on West 38th Street. It was a reasonably fashionable place, especially for the opera singers at the Metropolitan - thatís the old Met, not the new one, of course - because they could get back and forth easily, the stage door being only a block and a half away. My father knew many of them well. In fact, according to Briana, he knew two of them extremely well, close and well. It makes me laugh to think about that, because he knew nothing about their music, didnít even like it very much. There was a period of time, I was about twenty, when they had a subscription series at the Met - thatís the new Met, not the old ne - and he always complained about going, literally begged me to take her. But it was the singers, not the songs, that held him in thrall in the 1940s.
"Helga says she canít stand the new line," he told my mother once when I was still an infant. Itís a sentence I remember hearing, obviously not understanding, but hearing it anyway. What caught my ear in that first year of my life and stayed with me was the oddness of it, I suppose. I could recognize words, even grasp their meaning sometimes, but not restate them in any coherent fashion, a not unusual situation I suppose for a child of less than one year old. "Helga says she canít stand the new line." What could that mean? Even today I donít grasp the nuance, the hidden revelation.
Helga, it turned out, was the Wagnerian soprano my father had befriended at his hotel: Helga Meerstadt. And the "new line," what the hell was that? Clothing? Music? I never knew for sure. Now, now that Iím older and I fully understand the family history, the family profession, I wonder if that was a code, a buzz-word for some sexual by-play, something too outside the limits for Frau Meerstadt to indulge in during those idle hours in a room upstairs at the Excelsior Grand.
My fatherís other operatic companion was the American basso profundo Paul Donner. He was from California. He was tall, elegant, with dark flashing eyes and bright, overly white teeth. Donner had a rich, lush voice and even when he spoke there was a clarity and a strength that made your blood boil over, your skin tingle. I think he was the sexiest male singer in the classical music world of his day. He made three movies. Iíve seen them all. In them he overacts and his hammy gestures and his speaking voice donít seem connected. In real life, and I saw him quite a lot up until I was about ten, he was just plain dynamic, just plain sexy. You couldnít avoid the animal side of this man and when he opened his mouth and sang, that voice ran over you like molten silver. It heated up everyone in the room, female, male, it made no difference. Any room where he sang became an intimate space. Carnegie Hall, the Met, our living room, it didnít matter. He lassoed you with that dark sound and reeled you in like a heifer at a rodeo.
They were both married in 1946, Donner and Meerstadt, though not to one another. His wife lived on their ranch in California and raised chickens and artichokes. Her husband lived outside of Vienna and analyzed sex-starved women and sex-crazed men. I met them each just once and Iíll tell you about that later. But in 1946, the year I was born, and the year my father was a waiter and not the manager of the Excelsior Grand, Donner and Meerstadt were lovers and my father arranged for the room. He was their connection. He was, for all intents and purposes, their pimp. They each paid him handsomely for his friendship and his services. His "tips, " going out and coming in, were proof that his pudding had gelled nicely.
My father had a successful career going and he had an eleven year old daughter and a newborn son, a wife and a mother-in-law, my Granny, and he had his parents as well. He had a rich existence. He was content, well reasonably content, I suppose. He also had a brother and sister-in-law, my Uncle Frank, my Aunt Gussie.
Frank and Gussie were older than my parents. They had been married for seventeen years at that point in time and they were still childless, a situation my mother loved to bring up every time Frank or Gussie got the slightest bit judgmental about my father and his "career."
This conversation I am about to relate is not one I remember. I donít recall a single word of it personally, but I heard my mother repeat it and repeat it incessantly during the years I spent listening to her every word, worshiping the family stories she liked to tell. This is how she related the incident that I donít remember.
It was over dinner at our apartment. Only family was present. The main course had been consumed and dessert was underway. Granny Elaine was in the kitchen dishing out the Apple Brown Betty when the argument began, so she only heard part of it, only participated in the final moments.
"I think itís disgusting," Aunt Gussie apparently said, starting the fight.
"Gussie, donít go on," Uncle Frank added quickly.
"And there are children," she said before he had even finished admonishing her.
"Gussie, mind your own business," my mother said firmly.
"You shut up!" Gussie responded. "You have no right to...."
"No right? In my own house, no right?"
"Come on, ladies...Gussie, please," my father said.
"Donít you call her a lady, Jimmy. Any real lady is offended by that!" Gussie retorted, heaving her breasts upward, her arms crossed firmly, supporting them.
"She is my wife!" my father said, slamming his large, flat hand down on the table and making the glassware ring.
"Your choice, not mine," Gussie shouted.
"Gussie, please, keep your voice down, the children..." Uncle Frank hissed at her.
"The children? The children? The children should know who their mother is," my aunt spat back at him.
"My children know their mother, know who she is, what and how she is," my mother said. "Donít you babies?"
Briana, eleven years old, said quickly, "I hate you Aunt Gussie. Your twat is dead. No babies for you."
"Donít say those words, Briana," my father shouted at her, although apparently he was smiling when he said it.
"Did you hear her? Did you hear her language? How can she say such a thing to me?" Aunt Gussie cried.
"You brought in on yourself, Gussie," Uncle Frank told her.
"Dried up old man," Briana continued, pointing her finger at Uncle Frank. "Dried up gizzum. No babies for you."
"Where does she learn this language?" Aunt Gussie shrieked.
"From me, you hideous hag." Granny Elaine had come in from the kitchen and overheard this last part, I guess. "You prune, you pissant, you heinous heartless half-a-harlot. You donít even have the good sense to sell what no one can disturb."
"Elaine! You shock me," Aunt Gussie sounded like she was whimpering when she said this, my mother always told us.
"Do I? Good. Your system could take a few shocks. Might be the best thing for it."
"Mama, please," my father said, but she waved him off with a flaccid gesture.
"You owe these people, your generous hosts, an apology, Gussie. You owe them an apology so big you should hit the streets and work the men until you can repay them for this vile humiliation with dirty dollars you earn on your knees in back alleys."
According to my mother, Aunt Gussie fainted dead away at this concept and had to be taken home in a taxi. Two weeks later, by the time of the next family dinner, all of this had been set aside, put away somewhere in a drawer with a lilac cachet to cover its stench. Everyone was nice to everyone and nothing was said. I donít know, to this day, if in between those two get-togethers something was said, or done, to put this all right. But somehow the family came together and nothing was said. It was supposedly a pleasant time, but I donít remember that either. Thatís just what I was told.
My immediate family. Now you know about them. I should tell more about me, for this is my story, not theirs, but without them there would be no me. Thereís a small irony buried in that statement. Itís obvious that without my parents there would not have been a me. But the others youíve met, Gussie and Frank, Granny Elaine and my sister Briana, had as much to do with forming me, creating me, as my own parents ever did when they were still alive.
When I was ten I read Charles Dickensís novel David Copperfield. Are you familiar with it? "I am born," he wrote. "I am born." Well, I was born, too, and I led a life that so mirrors young Daveyís it sometimes confounds and confuses me, especially on those long nights in winter when memories flood the room where I sit with a brandy in a snifter on a table in front of a roaring fire. Music plays in this room, usually old opera recordings, mostly Paul Donner. His voice gets inside my body and swells it up, fills it with emotions and desires and even a tinge of sorrow. "I am born." I was raised. Some are raised up. I, oddly, was raised down.