Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Dinner With Shirley Maclaine December 7, 1970

Dad once said he preferred to keep the distance between himself and any movie star approximately the same length as a movie screen and a darkened middle-row aisle seat. But in December of 1970 he met Shirley Maclaine on a movie set, watched rushes with her in a projection room, drove her across Manhattan in our yellow volkswagon bus and had a martini and dinner at her apartment.

He was writing a story for The New York Times Magazine.
Maclaine was filming "Desperate Characters", directed by Pulitzer prize winner playwright Frank D Gilroy. During a break in the action, Dad followed Maclaine to a bedroom set aside as a dressing room. She lay down. He sat to the side and listened to her stories of growing up middle-class in Richmond,VA.

"Once I asked Mother what the difference was between things boys were interested in and what girls were interested in. She said 'Oh, that's easy: boys are interested in things they think about, what they'll do when they grow up and how best to make a living' something to that effect, and 'Girls are interested in how they look and what ribbons'-- I'll never forget that!'--what ribbons they should wear and how to easily make a man think he can do those things that he's been thinking about' Well, that's it. And that's the way it was."

By 1970, Maclaine has earned three Oscar nominations, written a critically acclaimed autobiography (Don't Fall Off The Mountain), seen the world, been called a "kook" and served as a California delegate at the Chicago convention.

"But don't you remember any particularly good times with your family?" Dad asked.

"Well, that's an interesting question, " Maclaine said. "..( the other night while sharing childhood memories with her brother Warren Beatty) It was as though not only had we been brought up in two different families, but on two different planets! At one point in the evening I realised that everything Warren remembers are the good things, everything I remember are the tragic realities."

That night they watched the rushes from the previous day's shooting. "There was something very strange about sitting next to Shirley Maclaine and watching Shirley Maclaine watching Shirley Maclaine on the movie screen in front of us...And I had an insane impulse to ask Shirley Maclaine to hold hands."

After rushes they drove back to Maclaine's apartment for martinis, some talk of politics ( "We did a lot of crying in those days, It all revolved around Bobby Kennedy and how deeply we realised how much we had lost.") and then dinner prepared by Maclaine's friend and Girl Friday Lori Lee. Veal with wine sauce.

Dad writes: "I had a terrible time reminding myself that this wasn't just a dinner with an ordinary friend, but a candlelight dinner a deux with Shirley Maclaine."

He concludes: "I don't think Shirley Maclaine's unreal at all. Like Auntie Mame, she does say something very important, very subliminally to your seventh mind, perhaps, but she does say it!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Writers Bowling November 6,1982

Dad displays his sense of humor, if not his bowling skills, in a radio story about a Writers Community Benefit for Young Writers November 6, 1982 - Mid-City Bowling Lanes in New York City.

Great to hear dad's laugh after all this time.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Dad's "Misunderstood" Novel 1983

This is a follow-up to an earlier post, "On Being Joan".

The first hit came in the New York Times Book Review. By the time Alice Adams called Dad's narrator "a very confused little boy, and this is a very confused long book", she'd already made Beautiful Women; Ugly Scenes look ridiculous with this paragraph:

Not only are all the women beautiful, they are all under 35, and none of them have aspirations toward professions or even jobs until under duress. They have, however, wonderful breasts, some huge: "When we made love they would flow, crest upward, break across her chest like waves, like surf." But most of the many, many breasts in this book are shaped like tears, a conceit that I have not come across before:" I was admiring their breasts, their weight, their arc as they flowed in a giant teardrop around their rib cages and then disappeared under their arms" (The confusion in syntax here led me to believe for a moment that he liked heavy women--at least an original taste--but not so; he likes heavy breasts.) Odette, the final great love, has breasts with nipples that remind the narrator of the noses of small puppies.

Dad would be told later than Adams had recently had a masectomy.

The review meant Dad would have to work harder to promote his book. More radio shows. More interviews. In Chicago he did twelve interviews in 32 hours. In New York, one morning, he did Morning Edition for NPR, followed immediately by Weekend Edition and then All Things Considered with a break for lunch ...with a reviewer.

The questions eventually came around to the one he hated. How much of Beautiful Women; Ugly Scenes is based on his real life.

As the LA Herald Examiner's Carol A Crotta put it.

The book is more than vaguely autobiographical. The narrator has been divorced twice; so has Bryan. The narrator picks up money during slow times by teaching in colleges; so does Bryan. The narrator has Odette; the woman in Bryan's lifde the past six years is Monique.

The obvious parallels are "very deliberate," he said, and they invite personal questions. "I don't mind you asking questions about it," he responds immediately, "as long as I don't have to answer them."

...And yet the lines between the narrator and Bryan blur often enough to cause some confusion even to members of Bryan's family. The eldest of Bryan's two daughters read the book, and Bryan relates,"There was sort of an awful 20 minutes where I really had to sit her down and say 'Look, Joan is not you and this is why she's not you' She could not read about Joan in the book without thinking it was her."

Soon Dad had a stock answer for the question: The book is 80% less autobiography than readers would like to think and 20% more than I would like to admit.

But as he would write later:

It's an answer that seems to satisfy (interviewers). But I have no idea what that answer really means. Nor do I think the question of autobiography in fiction has any literary relevance whatsoever. It may be an interesting question in terms of gossip, but not as related to books.

Dad complained most reviewers missed the point of the book. To those like Adams, he wanted to point out that he was using a literary device known as the unreliable narrator (like Humbert Humbert in Lolita or Spacey's character in The Usual Suspects.)

As he told a local newspaper reporter: "I knew what an ass he was or I wouldn't have written the book."

His hopes that he had a best seller on his hands soon vanished. No movie companies came calling. His next book would be one he'd have to do strictly for the money.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

I Can Tell You're Looking At My Popo 1964

From a letter to Katherine Lansing Barney:

Dear Granny:

Please forgive me for being so tardy in relaying you our warmest wishes and love to you on your past 85th birthday. I was just thinking how little Saint won't reach his 85th until 2049! Since he is the only real news we have, I can tell you that he is busting with health --and fat, and that he is an unreasonably sweet child. Because Phoebe was not feeling well last week I took St. to the doctor for his regularly monthly check-up. When all the babies in the waiting room started crying little Saint fell asleep on my shoulder. And he slept the entire time until he was examined. And even then, stretched out naked on a cold table, he didn't cry. But his finest moment came when he was given a shot ( diphtheria, typhoid) he cried for a few seconds then smiled again. So we are all very proud of him--as are we all of you.
Our love to you and our sincere hopes we can see you before your next birthday.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Mission Beyond Darkness, 1945

This print by renowned aviation artist Robert Taylor is one of many that can be found at www.roberttaylorprints.com

At the end of the First Battle of the Philippines, on June 19, 1944, United States Navy planes from Task Force 58 attacked a Japanese fleet. They sank at least one carrier and four tankers and damaged several other ships. Our losses were ninety six planes and forty nine men.

The attack occurred late in the afternoon amid a barrage of such intense anti-aircraft fire the ships below appeared to be on fire. From out of the clouds came a horde of Japanese fighter planes. Those who survived enemy retaliation then faced their greatest challenge: returning to that little sliver of home that is a carrier flight deck, in darkness, while running out of fuel.
Sixty four men took off in thirty four planes from Group 16's flagship, the USS Lexington.The book my grandfather wrote with Philip Reed, Mission Beyond Darkness, is an account derived wholly from statements by the survivors.

On that moonless night, Admiral Marc A Mitscher broke with protocol and had every ship in his task force switch on their lights to guide the planes home. So heavy was the stampede to the landing strips, plenty of exhausted pilots had little choice but to ditch.
Not all of them ditched within sight of the ships.
After cartwheeling in the waves 22 year old Ensign Edward Wendorf came to consciousness to find himself upside down in a Hellcat filling up with water. He managed to kick himself away from the sinking plane and into a raft. Filled with nausea from all the fuel he swallowed, he caught sight of something afloat.

From Mission Beyond Darkness:

The vague object drifted closer. It's a piece of wreckage from my plane, that's what! Soon it was close enough to touch. He was about to reach for it when he saw that it was moving. It was a shark. Another followed it, and another.
Wendorf became a madman. He pounded the water with his shoe, then threw it at them, screaming and cursing. The fins glided off, but turned and came back until they were three feet away. His screaming made him retch again, and his retching upset the raft tilt. He was terrified that it would upset, or that the sharks would puncture it and sink it. He thought of his pistol. The next thing that moved, he shot at. He fired eight times before nausea overwhelmed him again, and when the spasm passed, the sharks had disappeared...
He curled up and tried to sleep.
It'll be dawn soon.
Dawn was six hours away...

Though nine planes were lost all but four men survived. That was due in part to Admiral Mitscher's decision. He had brought thousands of men and a billion dollars worth of ships into enemy waters. He knew if he lit up the ships any Japanese torpedo plane or bomber or submarine in the area could hardly miss.
On the other hand, the prospect of several hundred planes fumbling for those narrow decks in the dark meant sure catastrophe.

Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher

It's important to note Mission Beyond Darkness was published in 1945, a war time book. It was produced in full compliance with the Government and was even printed with a seal of a bald eagle holding a ribbon that read "Books are weapons in the war of ideas."
After writing this book, Grandpa Joe worked for the Central Intelligence Agency with a concurrent commission as lieutenant colonel in the air force, giving him the unusual distinction of having been an officer in all three major branches of the armed services.

Friday, March 4, 2011

How Friendly Fire got started, 1970

Dad has just published his novel The Great Dethriffe when he went back to Iowa to visit a fellow teacher at the writer's workshop, Vance Bourjaily. Bourjaily's wife Tina asked Dad if he'd heard about the Iowa farm mother, Peg Mullen, who had taken the money the Army had sent her to bury her son Michael, who had been killed in Vietnam, and spent it instead on a half page anti war advertisement that appeared Easter Sunday in the Des Moines Register.

Dad's words:

Both Vance and Tina thought Mrs. Mullen might be worth looking into, that it sounded like a good story. "Mom's Apple Pie Gone Sour" I remember was Tina's phrase. Still I couldn't help asking myself who was left in America who would be willing to read a story which in any way touched upon the Vietnam War. I certainly didn't want to write one. Like everyone else, I was sick to death of hearing about Vietnam.

The turning point came for me when President Nixon went out to Kansas State and told his college audience, "The heart of America is sound...the heart of America is good?"
That simply wasn't true.

The heart of America was broken over the death of her young in Vietnamese jungles, in bunkers along the Cambodian border, in helicopters over Laos, on campus hilltops in Kent, Ohio and in dormitories at Jackson State. If the President thought otherwise then, it seemed to me, it was a clear case of "The Emperor's Clothes".

I felt there had to be some way to articulate the American people's discontent, their estrangement from their government, their increasing paranoia and distrust. And what better way was there than to return to Iowa? Iowans are among the most open, honest, friendly, trusting people in the country...if the government of the United States had lost the loyalty and support of an Iowa farm family then it indicated to me at least that the government was in very grave trouble indeed.

When I telephoned Peg Mullen and introduced myself and explained what it was I wanted to do, she was willing to have me come. I was, in fact, a little startled and dismayed by how eagerly she invited me. I left for Iowa two days later.

Dad's plan was to write a 6,000 word article for The New Yorker which would appear a few months later. Instead, the story of the Mullens became the book Friendly Fire, which would not appear for five years.

Dad's words:

Even before it was published, back when I had sent Peg and Gene Mullen the finished manuscript, I knew they would have problems with it. They could not and did not agree with me on how Michael had died. I want to backtrack a bit: when I went out to Iowa I was supposedly doing a story on why Peg had taken out the advertisement. But when I got there I discovered the real story lay in the Mullens' conviction that there existed a conspiracy to prevent them from learning how their son had died. He had been killed, they knew, by his own artillery, by FRIENDLY FIRE, but they believed the men on the guns had been drunk or on drugs, that the Army battalion commander was responsible for the cover-up, that the men had been threatened with court martial should they write the family the truth...And so when I returned to Guilford after speaking with the Mullens I told (William) Shawn (editor of the New Yorker) that I couldn't do it as an article, that I wanted to do it as a book, I wanted to find out how Michael died.

Michael Eugene Mullen
Sergeant, United States Army
Killed-In-Action 18-February 1970
By Friendly Fire

And I did find out. I spoke to the men who had been with him on the hill that night and they all agreed on what had happened. The men I talked to ranged from the West Point Lt. Colonel with three silver stars (future General Norman Schwarzkopf) to a young private in prison in Terre Haute, Indiana (William Polk) They all agreed. But the Mullens wouldn't believe that it had been just an awful, stupid accident. Their son's death had had to have more meaning. Eventually they came to believe that because of my Army Intelligence background, my Ivy League East Coast upbringing, that I was part of the conspiracy too. They don't believe that anymore...but they still aren't sure I told the truth.

Peg Mullen

In fact Peg Mullen wrote her own book in 1995, “Unfriendly Fire: A Mother’s Memoir,” expanding on her doubts. She remained distrustful of government and the media. In 2002 she wrote a columnist for the Register:

I have no idea of your age,but I hope you never have to stand in a quiet corner of an airport and say goodbye to a son in uniform, knowing in your heart that you’ll never see him again.

I hope you never suffer the horror of a military man sitting at your kitchen table trying to tell how your son died — then wait 10 days for his body to be returned and his casket unloaded in a darkened corner of the same airport.

Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Michael’s commander in Vietnam, met with the Mullens to answer their questions. But nothing he could say brought comfort.

“To me, the death of Michael Mullen was not just one tragedy, but two: the needless death of a young man, and the bitterness that was consuming his parents,” the general wrote in his autobiography.

More than twenty years later, Dad was still hearing from some of the soldiers who were with Michael the night he died. His favorite was surely Gary Samuels, "The Prince". who had lost a leg that night. Samuels and his wife would stop by Dad's house once a year for raucous visits full of laughter.
On a November night in 1998, Dad pulled down his leather bound edition of Friendly Fire and Gary wrote these words:

Friendly Fire--You've written quite a book! It's all true. It's as if you were sitting on my shoulder. I sincerely appreciate your efforts and so do the guys in the 198 1/6--God Speed. The Prince. Gary Samuels 11-13-98 Courty's house Guilford,CT

To which Dad responded

The inscription below was written in my presence and my response was extraordinary appreciation and affection because although Gary says "it's all true"--I WAS NOT THERE! Gary was. And he is a hero to me. CDBB Nov 13, 1998