[Bill doesn’t like this story. I can’t tell if it’s because it’s about another man, because he ate too much chopped liver last night and doesn’t feel well today, because the story is very long, or because it’s not very good. (It is sort of a shaggy dog story.) But if I don’t publish it, you’ll have to look at yesterday’s post for two days, and we can’t have that. Keep your fingers crossed, and be kind.]
I haven’t met many famous persons.
When I was twelve, I lived in an apartment building in Kew Gardens where a child actress also lived when she wasn’t making a movie in Hollywood. I think she had a small part in “How Green Was My Valley,” about Welsh coal miners. Or maybe it was “The Corn Is Green,” also about a Welsh coal miner. It was definitely a movie about coal and miners and Wales.
I never actually saw this child actress except in her movie, which I don’t even remember the name of, so maybe she doesn’t count. Besides, she was only famous in our neighborhood. Then she grew up and became not famous anywhere anymore.
On the other hand, after I grew up I once had lunch in a New York deli where Paul Newman, in his prime, was eating a sandwich at the counter. He had his back to me the whole time, but I’m sure it was him because the whole deli was whispering about it. There was no face-to-face though, so that probably doesn’t count, either.
However, in the late 1990s I saw him again — and this time it was face-to-face. I was meeting friends for dinner at an Italian restaurant called I Madri. [Good, but now defunct; don’t try to go.] As I reached for the door, it opened; a smiling man inside was holding it for me. It was Alan Alda. Of course, I smiled back.
Right behind him was another man. I was prepared to go on smiling, but this second man wiped the smile clear off my face with his scowl. He was angry that all the smiling had held up their speedy exit. It was Paul Newman. No longer in his prime, but blue eyes are blue eyes.
Later he died. Alda’s still around though. See what smiling can do?
When I was in my early thirties, divorced, and not at all bad to look at if I do say so myself, I passed Philip Roth on Madison Avenue. I was walking south, he was walking north, and he definitely looked at me. With appreciation. (Trust me, you know those things.) Of course, judging by the book he had just finished writing and was about to make a lot of money from, he looked at many women with appreciation. (It was Portnoy’s Complaint, if you haven’t guessed.) But I hadn’t read it yet.
In the end, which was right after the beginning, neither of us stopped. Nevertheless, I thought about it for three days. How could I follow up on that look?
Reader, I couldn’t think how. It’s just as well. You’ll understand why if you ever read Claire Bloom’s book, “Leaving a Doll’s House.” She was, eventually, his second wife. She tells all. Whew! Was I lucky it turned out the way it did!
I also once had sushi in the same restaurant as Yul Brynner, but we were too far from each other for there to be anything to tell you. They put him by the window, so passersby would recognize him and come in. I was in the rear, near the kitchen. All I actually saw was his bald head.
We come now to the famous, or once-famous, person this post is really about. All that stuff before was just warm-up for the main event. To put it in perspective for you.
It was October 1994 and I was again between husbands. Between second husband and Bill, to be precise — in other words, at liberty. I was working at a very large law firm, second largest in Boston at the time. (I name no names.)
This law firm was so large, for Boston, that it occupied many many floors of a building a whole square block around; in fact, it took three or four minutes in the elevator to get from its highest to its lowest floor. 300 lawyers on those floors, plus 400 in support staff, not counting the mail room.
I should probably also mention that many of those 700 people sort of knew who I was. Not because I had done such extraordinary things in court (I hadn’t), but because I was the only woman in the firm with a New York accent. (We were in Boston, remember? “Pahk the cah in Hahvahd yahd?”) Unlike anyone else who worked there, I sounded as if I had come right out of a Woody Allen movie.
Levity aside, you didn’t have much spare time for lolly-gagging around if you practiced law at this big firm. But you had a little bit. It was still before cell phones and working from home. When you finally did get to go home, you were relatively free of the office and law — for a while.
Which is how I was able to take an advertised walk with a Boston Park Ranger through the Emerald Circle of Boston’s municipal parks on the first Saturday in October. I did it to knock myself out so I would be too tired in the evening to indulge in self-pity, all alone by the telephone.
While dutifully admiring nineteenth-century statues of important historical figures on the Boston Common, I fell in with another walker; she was about my age, also divorced with two grown sons, and also living in Cambridge. (A social worker, but you can’t have everything.) We went home together on the Red Line.
Just before I got out at the Harvard Square stop, she asked how I felt about Mort Sahl. He was coming to Cambridge for a two week run at the Hasty Pudding Theater on Holyoke Street. Would I like to go with her the following Saturday night?
In all candor, I felt nothing for Mort Sahl. By then I had seen him in performance three times. First with a blind date, when I was very young and he was still unknown; next with first husband, when I was not yet thirty and he was very famous; last with second husband, when I was not quite middle-aged and his career was not quite gone.
So I’d had plenty of opportunity to decide he wasn’t my type. In spite of that, I agreed to go. It wasn’t as if I had anything better to do next Saturday night.
Attention, those of you not yet adults in the early 1960s: Run, don’t walk, to Wikipedia to look up Mort Sahl. His photo there will show you a tall, dark-haired man with a devilish grin. You’ll learn he was born in 1927, had been married twice by the time of this story, was the first ever American performer to make it in stand-up comedy discussing current events and politics. He was especially popular with East and West Coast soi-disant intelligentsia — who jammed themselves into smart boîtes and clubs on both coasts whenever and wherever he appeared, if only to say they’d seen him in action.
You’ll also learn how he would stroll to the mike so casually, wearing his signature sweater, with signature rolled-up newspaper in hand — and then let fire into a hot packed room. He was swift, sharp, biting, bitter. And merciless. In 1960 Time Magazine called him “Will Rogers with fangs.”
My new friend brought another friend to the performance; I never did catch this one’s name. The nameless friend had long streaming grey hair, flowing garments and practiced some kind of spiritual balance therapy with pyramids, algae and crystals. Definitely not my type, either.
We accordingly chose a seating arrangement that allowed new friend and nameless friend to coo at each other till showtime, leaving me to case the room. Judging by the scatterings of silver heads and wispy white beards, we were an aging group. No young folks at all. And plenty of empty seats.
Then the theater dimmed, the stage lights went on, the feature attraction strolled out to the mike. He was still wearing a sweater, still carrying a rolled-up newspaper, still tall. But the dark hair was grey, the grin querulous, the quips tired and forced.
And soon a new disquiet crept into his discourse: the end of his twenty-four year marriage. How he’d tried, how much it hurt, why it shouldn’t have ended.
Mort Sahl without fangs. The audience stirred restlessly. Two or three got up to go. Didn’t he realize? Didn’t he care? My type or no, I began to feel bad for him. How could he humiliate himself like that? Shut up already about the lost wife and start snarling.
But he didn’t. Or couldn’t. On and on and on he went, dragging himself past the absence of response, the awful silences. Until it was over. A few feeble claps. The doors opened. At last: a breath of fresh air.
I ruminated all weekend. About the fleetingness of fame. About aging men and their lack of resilience. About what really matters, and what doesn’t. By Monday morning, I had come to a decision. I was going to write him a letter.
Monday night I did.
[To be continued tomorrow.]