[Continued from previous post.]
What do you write an aging comedian whose sun seems to have set?
October 10, 1994
Dear Mort Sahl:
I was at the 7 p.m. show last Saturday, very pleased to be seeing you again in your red sweater still doing your thing to a gratified audience. What was particularly pleasing for me has to do with an evening at the end of summer 1952, when I predicted your future to my date.
In August 1952, I was fresh out of college, an insecure little girl from the East whose parents had just moved to L.A. with daughter in tow. (No, I didn’t resist, which tells you something right there.) On that evening I was brought to a so-called party at someone’s apartment by a physically unprepossessing blind date (short! and with a big nose!) — the son of someone my mother had met at a beauty parlor. He was in training to do psychotherapy. Our disenchantment with each other was mutual; I never saw him again after that.
Among the other guests was you, sitting on the floor, looking unkempt, unshaved and somewhat ragged, and holding forth to the assembled with what I took for (and may well have been) venom and rancor about practically everything but especially the under-appreciation which you had been accorded in San Francisco, from whence you had just come in a state of apparent destitution. During the interstices of your performance from the floor, my date whispered that you were the current boyfriend of still another guest, who was putting you up and feeding you while you purportedly tried to get on your professional feet in L.A.
It was very hot. I was wearing — with maximum discomfort — that summer’s requisite outfit for the upwardly mobile: a waist cincher, a strapless bra that felt as if it were sliding down, two scratchy crinolines, a heavily quilted off-the-shoulder Anne Fogarty dress with a circle skirt and three-inch wide belt that dug into the ribs and also made gas, because it prevented the proper digestion of dinner. In addition, I wore several pounds of makeup which were threatening to slide away in a flood of perspiration if we didn’t get out of there soon. Not surprisingly, I did not feel benign.
“A loser,” I pronounced to the date with finality as we made our getaway. “Now there’s someone who’ll never amount to anything.”
Well. I first went to see you perform (for money) in New York, in the company of husband number one — about four or five years later, I think. It may have been at the Blue Angel. Husband number one dragged me. The sweater wasn’t red yet, the crowds were huge, you were too quick for most of the audience and at times, to my chagrin, too quick for me. Husband number one, who was able to keep up, thought you were great.
The second time I saw you perform was again in New York, during one of your later renascences, but with husband number two. I dragged husband number two. The sweater was now red, you were much mellower, and mercifully slower on the draw. No more semi-automatic attack weapons. I could keep up. Husband number two, the unwilling attendee, thought you were great.
This time, newly resident in Cambridge, I and a 1950’s-vintage lady neighbor I had recently met decided to go together. (No dragging.) But she dragged still another lady I did not know. Both ladies turned out to be into crystals, green algae, and the like. I don’t know what the two ladies thought. I thought you were great.
If it weren’t for the presence of the two ladies, who began clamoring to get to Chef Chow for Chinese food as soon as you walked off, I would have come back stage to tell you so. (I probably would also have talked about survivors, and change, and process, and heavy stuff like that, if you actually have real conversations when you’re off stage.) But I couldn’t, and I didn’t, and hence this letter.
I’ve never written a fan letter to anyone before, and probably never will again, but it seems unlikely that either of us will last another forty-two years, so here it is.
[I’m also sorry that you are lonely sometimes and that the end of your marriage hurts you so much — inappropriate as such remarks may be in a letter of this kind.]
If you ever come back to these un-Hollywoodlike parts, and feel like getting in touch, please do.
Take care and be well.
I put my home address on the letter, and mailed it. I had done what I could. A Rule 56 motion was waiting in my office. It was Tuesday morning, I was only half done, and the whole thing, with supporting documents, had to be filed by 4 p.m. Friday. Or the client would be in the soup, and I’d be out the door.
[Ah, those were the fun days of my life! The pay was pretty good, though, if you could stand the pain.]
I made it. No soup, no door. And not a peep out of Mort Sahl, either. When I had time to think about him again, I wondered if my letter had ever reached him. I’d sent it to the theater, not knowing where else it should go. Was that like the Black Hole of Calcutta?
Oh well. It was a pretty good weekend, all things considered: Hairdresser, shopping, pistachio ice cream in bed. But not for the lawyer I shared a secretary with; he was slaving away his Saturday in the office. [Yes, we did that sometimes. Correction: a lot of times.]
Let’s say this lawyer’s name was Jim. It wasn’t, but let’s say anyway. If my phone were to ring when I wasn’t there, the call would go to our secretary. And if she wasn’t there but Jim was, he’d be the one who picked up. (Thinking, no doubt, it was for him.)
That Saturday, my phone did ring. Jim put the message on our secretary’s desk. Come Monday, she saw it before I did.
Did she ever get busy! Soon every secretary on our floor knew what was in my message. Then the news flew, like wildfire, to other floors. Don’t legal secretaries have anything to do except gossip (as one of them put it) about “lawyers in love?”
By the time I showed up at 9:33 (after three minutes in the elevator) and saw the yellow sticky now squarely centered on my desk, I must have been the last to know what Jim had written on it:
You got a call from Mort Sahl. He’s at the Charles Hotel, 864-1200. Call him Monday if you don’t see this before then.
Jim (Saturday – 2:20 p.m.)
Oh, Mort. Why the office? I gave you my home address! Couldn’t you have asked Information for that number instead?
I closed the door before I dialed. (Yes, I was nervous.) The hotel switchboard connected me.
The familiar voice was cautious: “Hello?”
I explained who I was.
The voice warmed up. “That was a great letter!”
Me: Glad you liked it. (This was true.)
He: You’re a lawyer?
Me (evasive): Mmm.
He (skipping over the lawyer part): A really great letter. I’d like to see you.
Me: I’d like that, too.
Me again: Will you be here long?
He: Flying out this afternoon.
Me (disheartened): “Oh.”
He (encouraged by the disheartened “oh”): “But I’ll be back. We’re doing another show in the East in December. Maybe then?”
He: Bye, then.
Well, what did you expect? Romeo and Juliet?
Important Rule of Life: It’s not enough for news to travel, it has to change and grow as well. At one in the afternoon when I got back into the elevator, the head of my department was in the elevator, too. This dour lady lawyer had always disapproved of me. She didn’t like that I sometimes laughed. She considered my remarks about the environmental problems caused by underground storage tanks insufficiently serious.
But today her thin face was wreathed in smiles. “Nina!” she cried joyously as the elevator doors closed on us. I thought she might be going to hug me. “Congratulations! I hear you’re engaged to Mort Sahl!”
That’s probably the high point of this story. It’s all downhill from here on. Beginning with the three whole minutes in the elevator it took to get myself unengaged. Disengaged? You know what I mean.
So maybe I should stop while I’m ahead. But I’d be lying if I let you think I didn’t watch The Boston Globe and The New York Times like a hawk for the next two months. However, if Mort ever came East again that year, it got by me.
Ah, don’t fret. There is a happy ending. Three happy endings actually, if you take the long view.
1. The dour lady lawyer who headed up our department began to look on me more favorably.
2. Two years later, Mort Sahl found a new wife.
3. Seven years later, I met Bill, who’s more my type. [Even if he doesn’t like this story.]
Also, Mort was right. It was a great letter. And we both still have that.