It was October 1994; I was again between husbands. (Between second husband and Bill, to be precise.) In other words, I was at liberty. And working at a very large law firm, second largest in Boston.
This law firm (I name no names) was so large, for Boston, that it occupied many floors of a building a whole square block around. There were so many floors it took three or four minutes for the elevator to get from the top one to the lowest. The firm employed upwards of 300 lawyers on those floors, plus 400 in support staff, not counting the mail room. Also pertinent to this story is 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. Unlike anyone else who worked there, I sounded as if I’d 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 leave, 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 intelligentsia — who jammed themselves into smart 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 emerged from 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 about the lost wife already and start snarling.
But he didn’t. Or couldn’t. On and on and on he went, laboring 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, 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.
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 therefore didn’t. 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 summary judgment 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.[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: more than sometimes.]
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 answered, and 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 for lunch, 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 un-engaged. Dis-engaged? 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.
- The dour lady lawyer who headed up our department began to look on me more favorably.
- Two years later, Mort Sahl found a new wife.
- Seven years later, I met Bill, who’s more my type.
Also, Mort was right. It was a great letter. And we both still have that.