WATCHING FROM THE WINGS
CHAPTER ONE: Legends and Longitudes
Marlene Dietrich at the Circle Star Theatre in San Carlos, California
March 22, 1973 - San Carlos, California
I turned around in my front row seat to watch Marlene Dietrich scurrying down the aisle past me, generating a baby blue vortex of Chanel-scented air as she sprinted toward the unlit stage of the Circle Star Theatre. Glancing over her shoulder to memorize her route she noticed me sitting there alone, an audience of one in a two thousand-seat theatre, then continued down the aisle counting to herself with each step. Rehearsal had begun.
“Twenty-two, twenty-thwee, twenty-four...” she muttered and then, looking straight forward, head tilted up, she used the golden tips of her sequined high heels to feel out the three steps leading to the circular stage. She raised herself up so gracefully it was as though some invisible hand was lifting her and gently placing her back down. She was rehearsing her entrance down the steeply raked aisle and feeling out the steps for that evening’s opening. As long as she was there, she'd sing a couple of songs.
I was startled - though I'm easily startled - because A) I had just smoked a joint with her stage manager in the alley next to the theatre (Yes, it was the seventies) and B) I was assured that Dietrich never attended orchestra rehearsals; certainly never on her opening night; and if she did attend, she never, ever sang.
Dressed in a light blue denim pantsuit with wide bell-bottoms and tightly tailored jacket, her outfit was topped by an enormous denim Dutch boy cap perched upon unkempt tangles of ash blonde hair. With pie-plate sized sunglasses obscuring her eyes, she was heading straight for the microphone. The sparkling golden shoes were anachronistic to her blue jean ensemble but the three-inch heels were the ones she would be wearing for the performance that evening and she needed to be sure of her footing. She was not happy.
Stan Freeman, her musical director and my best friend, was conducting the orchestra and had just begun the introduction to “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” which Dietrich sang as an anti-Viet Nam War protest. Stanley was looking at his music when she glided unseen onto the stage behind him and he jumped a foot when she started to bark out orders. A few of the musicians tapped their instruments as a way of acknowledging her presence but she either didn't notice or didn't care. The music continued.
“Get me a wamp! I need a wamp! I can't climb steps with a spotlight in my eyes. I WANT A WAMP!” It dawned on the stoned-out stage manager that he was responsible for satisfying such a request and began darting around trying to locate a “wamp” as the work lights suddenly popped on. Although the stage would revolve a complete 360 degrees for her performance, it was stationary for now. The great Dietrich faced me as she grabbed the microphone and caught up to the song, joining in on “…long time passing…Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago?”
Without makeup, standing under stark work lights that bleached the color from her hat, her clothes and the lines from her face, she was transformed into a black and white image. I felt as though I was watching an early film of Dietrich and not a live person. She was mesmerizing. There was something so compelling about her presence that you appreciated why she had departed the rank of movie star and had arrived at living legend.
I was so taken by the sight of her that I almost forgot how cold it was in the domed cavern - what seemed a few degrees above freezing. Dietrich told us all in the limo on the ride out that she wanted the air to be glacial so that the audience would remain alert. At this temperature, they would congeal. Standing at the mike, she was singing full out,
“Where have all the graveyards gone long time passing?"
"Where have all the graveyards gone long time ago?” in a low rumbling monotone that made her sound more like an ancient monk chanting than a chanteuse.
Suddenly she stopped. “Whewe are de bullets? Wemember de bullets!” she admonished Stanley.
“I’ll make sure they’re louder, Marlene,” bellowed Stan as he abruptly waved the orchestra to a stop. “At numbers 78 and 79, those violins are fortissimo and multi-pizzicato. They should sound like gunshots.”
“And bullets!” added Dietrich.
The orchestra began again and the violins pierced the air with their staccato shrapnel stings as Dietrich sang on to the end of Pete Seeger‘s masterpiece.
She stepped back from the mike as Stan told the orchestra that the next song was, unlike Dietrich’s current mood, bouncy and whimsical. It was Charles Marrowood‘s Australian novelty number, “Boomerang Baby.” Stan started the slinky vamp and Dietrich purred into the mike,
“Boom boom boom boom boom-a-wang, baby.
Fly, fly away, fly away from me, you boom-a-wang baby.”
When she got to the spoken bridge of the song, she took off those enormous sunglasses and looked me right in the eye, “Hey there. Back so soon? Have a nice twip?” She finished the song and asked again, to no one in particular, “Whewe is my wamp?”
The stage manager, still too stoned to move quickly, sauntered down the aisle and assured Marlene that a ramp was being taken out of storage and would be in place within fifteen minutes.
“I will not be lied to,” she said with sharp finality.
Muttering something to the effect of “Everybody lies to you,” the worker set off again to look for a “wamp.” I recalled a story Stan told me about conducting for Dietrich during her Tokyo engagement at the Imperial Hotel when a concertmaster's lie very nearly led to an International incident.
The Japanese rehearsal was to begin at one p.m. By one-thirty, only half of the local Tokyo musicians had arrived and Dietrich asked where the other half were and why they were so late? It was “un-pwofessional! “
The concertmaster, bowing excessively low, indicated to Miss Dietrich that the string section was stuck in a massive traffic jam near the Ginza and would arrive at the venue shortly. Dietrich thought it a was strange explanation and asked a very logical question, “Do they all dwive here together in one car?” The concertmaster responded with another plastic smile, more excessive bow and backed away from her without further comment.
Ten minutes more went by when Dietrich encountered the first violinist and asked him where the other musicians were?
“They called in sick,” he told her, “and the producers were finding substitutes.” Another bow.
Stan reported that Dietrich went ballistic. She drove her foot through the floorboard of political correctness and shattered it by saying, “Stop! I have now been told two diffewent stowies. First, the musicians are delayed by twaffic and now you tell me they are all sick. This is not acceptable. You have pwoven to me once and for all that the Japanese are sneaking, thieving, lying little people and I have not forgotten Pearl Harbor!” Marlene was not going to get the Ambassadorship to Tokyo that year.
Stan said there was a party for her after the opening show given by the Mayor of Tokyo where extravagant golden-silk kimonos had been made especially to present to her as gifts. She was so upset by the lies she had been told that refused to attend and sent word to the Mayor “to take back his bathwobes!”
I was snapped out of my daydream by a change of lighting. Some techies noticed Dietrich on the stage, turned out the house lights, brought the stage lights up and a phenomenon occurred. She seemed to get taller in the light, like a flower responding to the sun as she let them warm and comfort her. She stepped back and listened for the introduction to the next song. It was "I Wish You Love.”
I wondered why I had smoked that joint with the stage manager outside in the alley before rehearsals began. Was I appreciating the full impact of this event? Well, it was 1973 and everyone smoked pot for breakfast with their coffee and I thought the music would sound enhanced. The fact that Dietrich herself was singing to me alone in the middle of this icy cavern was by far the most surrealistic experience of my life to date. Or was it?
Was it my father dating Joan Crawford? Or being invited to Fenwick by Kate Hepburn? Or the New York City blackout of 1965? Or working with Ethel Merman? Or riding to New York's City Hall with Mayor John Lindsay? Or campaigning with Harvey Milk in San Francisco? Or hiring a 16 year-old John Travolta to be in a New Jersey dinner theatre production of “Bye Bye Birdie?” Or meeting President Kennedy? Or Mrs. Roosevelt?
No, this moment with Dietrich was it. Especially as she stopped singing in the middle of the song when she saw that a ramp had just been exchanged for the three steps and Dietrich seemed eager to try it out. She hit the aisle and just as she passed me said, “The Fisherman” and kept on going. It sounded like code - something one spy would say to another before exposing all their secrets.
“The Fishermam.” She didn't really stop. She didn't really look directly at me. Yet I knew she was speaking to me and wanted a response. But I was still too stoned to comprehend her meaning or form a response.
“The Fisherman.” What did it all mean? Was there a clandestine operation going on?
I thought about Myron Cohen’s joke about the Jewish spy on his first day at the job. He's given the most dangerous and critical assignment in the history of the CIA. He is to go to an address, ring the doorbell marked “GOLDBERG” and when a man comes to the door say the code: “The Sun Is Shining.” He will then be given confidential documents that will save the world. If anything goes wrong he is to bite down on a cyanide capsule placed under his tongue. At all costs, this mission must be kept top secret.
Our new spy gets to the address and sees two names and two buzzers: A. GOLDBERG (1-A) and R. GOLDBERG (2-A). He rings the first bell and an elderly man comes to the door. The new spy says, “The sun is shining.“ The old man says “You want Goldberg, the Spy - Upstairs. So Dietrich is the spy and “The Fisherman” is the code. Jeez, that pot was good.
After the rehearsal, Stan told me that she had invited everyone in her party out to a restaurant in San Francisco called The Fisherman for dinner after that evening’s show. Since I was with him, I was part of the group. The show would start in four hours and since we were an hour drive from San Francisco, we brought a change of clothes and would shower in the dressing room. Stanley thought that Dietrich was in a particularly good mood since she had deigned to come to the rehearsal.
“She wanted to try out her wamp,” I explained, “and she decided to stay. She saw me sitting there and wanted to do it just for me.” Stanley laughed - God what an easy and wonderful laugher he was. His voice was like stone workers sifting through a gravel pit but when he laughed, his eyes completely shut and a rumble of contagious guffaws burst forth.
When I went to San Francisco with him for this engagement, we had been friends for four years, having met through my roommate at the time, Bob Nigro, who directed the long-gone NBC soap opera, “Search For Tomorrow.” Bobby was another great laugher with a hairline trigger for high tone giggles that lasted forever. One of the greatest laughs the three of us ever had was at Bobby’s expense.
We were at Stan's house on Fire Island when Bobby walked directly into a closed floor-to-ceiling plate-glass door and knocked himself unconscious. Stanley and I were still hysterical when he came around. We weren't being mean. Bobby had commented not an hour before that only a idiot couldn't tell the difference between that door being opened and being closed.
The forty-five minute trip from San Francisco to San Carlos was taken in a stretch limo with the passengers being Miss Dietrich, Stanley, myself, Jeanette (Marlene’s aide de camp), Gene (her drummer) and Gene’s wife, who was also one of Marlene’s helpers. It was a stretch limo that featured jump seats and could hold five comfortably. Marlene opted to sit up front with the driver and leave the six of us fighting over the five seats.
Jeanette met us at the top of the aisle and told us that Marlene was taking a nap but she would see us all at seven-thirty for cocktails. Stan said La Dietrich always had a few people in her dressing room an hour before the show and served champagne, which she never took herself. It was all part of the ritual.
We stayed in Stan’s dressing room with Chinese take-out until it was time to change and go to Marlene’s. The drummer and his wife were there already along with Joe Davies (her British lighting designer), Jeff (the stoned stage manager), the owner of the theatre and his wife and a silent, dazed-looking girl who just stood there without any seeming affiliation.
We thought Marlene was in the other room of her dressing room suite, but then Jeanette came in from the hallway, followed by Marlene who had changed into a bright red tailored pantsuit, white blouse and red fedora.
“Well, it looks like a pawty,“ she said, “But what is a pawty without champagne.“ The theatre owner signaled the silent girl who went to the hallway and returned with a liquor trolley. Jeanette had already opened the door to the inner room and from where I sat, I could see Marlene’s famous nude dress in the mirror. It looked like it was standing up by itself. Marlene, looking older than her 70+ years, hung on the door of the inner room for a moment with a knowing smile on her face. She looked like a magician about to enter the enchanted box, and only she held the secret of the trick. The dressing room door closed and the old woman disappeared.
Remember Houdini’s great illusion, The Metamorphosis? He would lock his assistant in a trunk upon which he would then stand. A curtain flew up, then down and in an instant they changed places and Houdini emerged from the trunk in a totally different costume. Forty-five minutes later, when Dietrich‘s dressing room door opened and she stepped back into the room, she had been completely transformed into the icon-legend-megastar of the Silver Screen. She was breathtaking. None of us could speak as we all took her in. Then she broke the ice. “Anybody have a banana?”
Speaking of magic tricks, Jeanette seemed to pull a banana out of thin air and handed it to Marlene who carefully pulled the skin back and admired it before taking a bite off the end.
I asked, “Do you always have a banana before a show, Marlene?”
“Always!” she told me. “Potassium!“ And I’ll have another at intermission. It’s good for when you have to stand so long.”
“Fifteen minutes, Miss Dietrich!” announced Jeff, the Stage Manager. Joe Davies raised his champagne, “To our Marlene!”
I wondered if I should join in the toast. After all, I had only met her the day before at the airport and wasn’t sure if I knew her well enough to enjoin with the others to drink to “Our Marlene.” But I lifted my glass. “To Our Marlene!” After all, she was everyone’s Marlene.
As soon as the toast was done, Jeanette opened the door to escort us out. Marlene turned to the mirror and began to study every inch of herself as the door closed like a wipe fading out on a scene from one of her old movies. We stepped through the curtain into the back of the arena, which was packed and buzzing with anticipation.
I walked down the same aisle I saw Dietrich stroll down that afternoon and I started counting my steps. I stopped at twenty-four. It was twenty-eight steps to the ramp. I sat in the second row with Joe Davies, the designer who created the magical lighting that kept her looking like a Rembrandt for two hours.
Stanley came down the aisle in his tuxedo, unannounced and unlit. He was wearing a new toupee. It was a little too big for his head. I had noticed at the orchestra rehearsal that his hair had seemed to have edema. It was at least twice as big as it had been when he woke up that morning. His appointment to get a “haircut” had been actually to get a new hairpiece that was styled with bangs and wings that reminded me of Imogene Coca. This one was so over-sized you could, as they say, “Get to Baghdad on that rug!” The day after Dietrich opened at the Circle Star, the review in the San Francisco Chronicle was a rave except they reported that “Miss Dietrich’s conductor looked like Peter Lorre with a bad toupee.”
When Stan was in place on the stage, the house lights went out, the audience fluttered and a spotlight cut through the dark from one side of the arena to the other.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the one and only, Marlene Dietrich.” Stan raised his hand and the orchestra came to life with the horns trumpeting the first notes of “Falling In Love Again” much like heralders announcing the arrival of a queen.
Wearing that incredible white ermine coat which followed behind her, she stepped into her beam and floated down the aisle, looking straight forward, neither waiving to the cheering crowd nor acknowledging the standing ovation they were giving her. Head high, moving forward, I applauded her and chuckled to myself that I was the only one there who knew what was going on in her head - she was counting the steps.
On the twenty-eighth step she started to ascend the “wamp” and the crowd exploded. She walked the perimeter of the circular stage so that everyone, as Ethel Mertz might say, could get a load of her. She acknowledged Stanley and stepped to the mike and purred into it as if it were the ear of her great paramour.
“I can't give you anything but love, baby.
That's the only thing I've plenty of, baby…”
After two more songs, the coat came off, the stage turned, she sang two dozen more songs including “Lili Marlene” and “Falling In Love Again” and left them wanting more. The audience stood and screamed.
Stan Freeman bows with Marlene Dietrich at the Queens Theatre, London (1972)
I had seen this same show twice before Stan and I ever met. Once was in Montreal during Expo ‘67 and also when she played the Lunt-Fontanne on Broadway. I took my cousin Eileen Quain to see it and she begged me to wait with her so we could get Dietrich’s autograph after the show. We stood outside the stage door in three degree weather, right next to the door, and when Dietrich came out my cousin thrust her program at her,
“Miss Dietrich, may I please have your autograph?” implored Eileen.
Without even looking at her Dietrich said “No“ and pushed her way through the crowd to her waiting limo. Oh, well. Five years later, I wanted to call Eileen and tell her I was sitting with Dietrich in her dressing room after her show drinking champagne with her but she wouldn’t believe me. I hardly believed it myself.
“I’m vewy hungwy,” said Marlene, who had now switched to vodka. “We’re going to the Fisherman. I have a cwaving for soft-shelled cwabs.”
Stanley bellowed, “How about you, Jim? Some soft shelled crabs and then scallops and maybe shrimp cocktail, lobster and shad roe? How does that sound?”
I raised my glass and returned his toast by sticking out my tongue at him, which Marlene caught.
Stan explained that he was kidding me because I had an aversion to fish. I couldn’t stand the sight of it. Still can’t. I tried to eat tuna salad once and couldn’t actually come to put it in my mouth before I started gagging. I know it’s totally psychological. I know it’s totally irrational. know I’m depriving myself of some of the greatest culinary pleasures on earth. But I hate fish and will never eat it.
Stan finished explaining my “problem” to Marlene and why he was laughing to Marlene who looked at me very strangely.
“No fish?” she asked.
“No fish,” I echoed.
The deep seated aversion I had to fish was inexplicable. I had grown up less than a quarter of a mile from New York Harbor, in Bay Ridge which is the section of Brooklyn that anchors the Verrazano Bridge. For the first ten years of my life a squat, green ferry crossed the narrows from the 69th street pier in Bay Ridge to Staten Island. The ferry went out of business when the bridge was finished in 1964, but the pier at 69th street was a favorite fishing spot where all the neighbors would go crabbing on the weekends.
I was terrified by the sight of these mesh cages filled with living breathing, ugly, monstrous crabs. My uncle John would be one of the fisherman from time to time and would take the crabs out their cages and chase after with me aiming the crabs for my throat. I had also just seen “The Creature From The Black Lagoon” which didn’t help my paranoia about biting into things that lived under the water.
In the Joan of Arc nursery school one of the teachers tried to convince me that the tuna salad she was serving me was actually chicken, but after one taste I knew I had been lied to and became hysterical. Fish and I would never come to an easy agreement.
Dietrich picked up the phone in her dressing room and dialed 411. “Get me The Fisherman,” she purred. Obviously the operator didn’t realize it was the great Marlene Dietrich when she asked. “What city please?
“I don t know what city, just connect me to The Fisherman. It’s a westauwant.”
She held the receiver for a moment while the operator found the number ands then made the connection.
I swear I thought she was going to cut the reservation to 7 instead of 8 and let me sit in the car while they all had dinner. Instead she said, “This is Marlene Dietrich speaking. I am coming to your westauwant with a party of 8. One of my guests eats no fish. Does the Fisherman serve meat?” It sounded like an oxymoron. A meat-catching fisherman. She listened for a moment then nodded as though she understood the answer and hung up.
“There will be no problem. Shall we go?”
It only took her a few minutes to change into her red pants suit and we left by the stage door. There was a crowd of about twenty waiting for an autograph or just a close up look at the great star, but she was like a tight end pushing her way through the people, not stopping, not looking until she was inside the back of the limo. The rest of us followed her in and within a few minutes we were being escorted into The Fisherman. The place smelled of fish.
The maitre’d bowed and led us to a beautifully set round table in the corner overlooking the wharf. Most of the people in her entourage didn’t want to sit next to her, leaving me next to the legend who still looked like the icon rather than the old German lady. As soon as we got settled, Stan Freeman noticed a young girl approaching the table. She was heading straight for Dietrich. There was another great star eating at the restaurant that night and she had sent the girl over to say hello to Marlene on her behalf.
The girl pulled up right next to Dietrich and said, “Excuse me, Miss Dietrich.”
Without turning or looking, Marlene said coldly, “You are not excused.”
The girl went white but continued with her mission. “But I have regards for you from Ann Miller. She’s sitting over there.” Dietrich looked across the room to see Miss Miller waving to her then turned to the girl and said, “Ann who?”
“Ann Miller,” repeated the girl.
“Well, you are vewy wude. Now please leave this table.”
The girl, almost in tears, ran back to the Miller table and whispered into Ann’s ear. Miss Miller shrugged and everything went back to normal. Stars and public figures can be funny about fans interrupting their dinner. There’s a famous story about Rex Harrison having dinner with Moss Hart at Sardi’s between a matinee and evening performance of “My Fair Lady.”
Legend has it that an elderly woman approached the Great Rex with a program in hand. “Oh, Mr. Harrison,” she gushed, “you are my most favorite actor in the world. I’ve seen every film you’ve ever made I waited a year for front row seats to the show and there you were in person and I was breathing the same air you were breathing and you are so handsome and talented and if only you’d sign my program my life would be complete.”
Harrison turned on the lady and barked, “How dare you, you old biddy. Can’t you see I’m trying to enjoy my dinner without you prattling on. I don’t care who you love or what air you breathe or anything else. You are disturbing me.”
With that, the lady held off, smacked him on the head with her playbill and walked away. Moss Hart then observed, “Well, that’s the first time I ever saw the fan hit the shit.”
I also saw Pearl Bailey treat a young fan terribly. It was at Sardi’s after a performance of “Hello, Dolly!” when a small boy of about ten approached the star at her table. “I saw the show today,” said the lad, “and could I have your autograph?”
Miss Bailey sneered at the boy, “Can’t you see I’m eating with my friends. Hasn’t your parents taught you any manners? I’ll sign the program when I finish eating and you can just stand there until I do.” The boy started to cry and stood frozen not knowing what to do. His mother ran over and collected him while Miss Bailey never looked up again.
The mood of the dinner changed for the good when Joe Davies, Dietrich’s lighting designer, arrived with an early edition of the San Francisco Chronicle that contained a rave:
Dietrich and her act are the most remarkable feat of theatrical engineering since the invention of the revolving stage, and age has if anything reinforced her voice to the point where (for " Lili Marlene” or Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone ?") she seems to have within her the strength of entire armies.
While we sat at dinner, I asked Marlene how Stan had come to be her musical director. She told me that when she first put the act together, Bewt Bachwach was her conductor and friend, but he had tired of doing the show and was preparing his first (and only) Broadway musical “Promises, Promises.“ As things are meant to happen, Stan was walking down Fifth Avenue one night and ran into Bert who said Marlene was looking for a new conductor and he would recommend Stanley if he wanted the job.
Bert warned him that she wasn‘t easy to work with, but Stan couldn‘t pass up the money and the perks that came along with the job so he took on the assignment.
The first few weeks were rocky. Stan said she was impossible to work with and found fault with everything he suggested or did. After one performance in London, Marlene complained about something Stan had done and he hit the ceiling, calling her every name in the book. He told her she couldn’t sing and that she was overrated and a supreme pain in the ass to work with. She loved him from then on.
The outburst did the trick. Marlene cried and said that she couldn’t lose him because he was the best conductor she had ever had. They were together for twelve years until Stanley helped to end her career for good.
They were performing at the Shady Grove Music Theatre outside Washington, D.C. On the first night, all went well except for the curtain call. Marlene came over to the foot of the stage and reached down to shake Stan’s hand after the performance. He said that she had to bend so far that he was afraid she would fall into the pit.
The next night, November 14, 1973, the show went along fine - full house, responsive crowd and standing ovation at the bow. Stan, being a gentleman, decided to stand on the piano bench so that Marlene wouldn’t have to reach down as far to shake his hand. He stood on the bench, took Marlene’s hand, the bench broke and he pulled her into the pit. Miss Dietrich landed on the drums, accompanying her fall with a tremendous, unexpected rim shot. Blood poured over her famous gown and it turned out she had gashed her leg open as she was impaled on the cymbal.
He told me that the audience let out a group gasp and an elderly married couple who had been sitting in the first row leaned over the orchestra pit railing and very nonplused said, “Very nice show.”
An ambulance took her the then 72 year-old to the local hospital where she was stitched up but the doctor found it difficult to close the whole wound which was about four inches in diameter. Senator Ted Kennedy sent his own personal physician to assess her condition and he told her that she lost a great deal of skin which had been sliced off by the edge of the drum kit.
Stan visited her in the hospital and was truly heartbroken that he had been the cause of her troubles. She said she didn’t blame him. It was an accident and accidents happen. Though she did mention that the pain was unbearable and she would have to go through months of skin grafts and physical therapy. She added that the doctors weren’t sure if the wound would ever heal or that she would ever walk properly again but that Stan shouldn't give it a second thought because it wasn’t his fault - though if he hadn't gotten on the bench, the accident wouldn’t have happened.
For weeks after the accident, Marlene would send pictures of her leg with horrific pictures of her wound - before and after the skin grafts - and then with huge bandages that covered her legendary leg from ankle to knee. With each note and each picture, Dietrich underscored that it wasn’t his fault and he shouldn't feel guilty.
She performed two weeks later in Toronto against her doctor’s wishes where she saw no one outside of her group, traveled by freight elevator between her room and the stage and played the entire two hour show in enormous pain. Her leg would not heal if she kept up the schedule so she knew she had to tend to her leg or it would be amputated. The leg that once had been insured by Lloyds of London.
After Toronto, she returned to her apartment in Paris where Stan would call her from time to time to cheer her up. Marlene always answered the phone herself but insisted she was the maid and that Miss Dietrich couldn’t come to the phone but she would pass on his good wishes.
Dietrich eventually went back to work after about nine months of recuperation and brought Stan back to conduct for her. But she wasn’t the same. She was brittle and in pain while she performed and took to using a stool so that she wouldn’t have to stand. Even the potassium from the bananas couldn’t help.
On October 4, 1975, while she was performing in Sydney, Australia she fell again without any help from Stanley and broke her leg. That was the end of her career. She never performed again and she retired to her Paris apartment, a place she never left until she was carried out in feet first in 1994.
June 20, 1959 - New York City
How does a kid from the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn go into show business and get to watch Marlene Dietrich rehearse when all he ever wanted to be was a priest. I was born on August 16, 1946 in the first year of the baby boom, the second year of the Truman presidency, the third printing of Dr. Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, the fourth sold-out month of Annie get Your Gun and the fifth week that Chiquita Banana tied with Zip-a-de-Doodah in the top slot on Your Hit Parade.
Just about everyone in my family - mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, uncle and some cousins were born in August which led me to believe that the Brochu-Condon-Ryan-Morrissey clans only had sex at Thanksgiving whether they wanted to or not. They were all so logy from all that turkey that they fell into bed and did what came naturally.
My father’s side of the family came from French Canada by way of upstate New York and settled in Washington Heights just south of the George Washington Bridge. My mother’s folks were from Ireland and settled in what was then called the Fourth Ward of New York Cty's lower Manhattan, an area along the East River just South of the Brooklyn Bridge. My mother, Veronica, was an only child, the daughter of Dick Condon and Theresa Morrissey: my father - son of Joseph Brochu and Mary Ryan - was the oldest of three boys and a girl who died of cholera when she was four.
Mom met dad when she worked in the steno pool for the Wall Street brokerage firm Allen and Company where dad was an up and coming executive. He started as a runner there in 1933 where the patriarch of the Allen clan, Charles Allen, saw potential in my father and promoted him to Municipal Bond trader. He became enormously successful by raising bond revenues for projects such as the Mackinac Bridge in Michigan, the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.
Mother Vera, age 25 (1944) and a proof of Dad, Pete, age 25 (1937)
Mother was, as my father described her, a “classy broad” who look like Merle Oberon and enjoyed a dirty joke with the best of them. They were engaged in 1937 but didn’t marry until 1943 while dad was on leave from his navy duty in the South Pacific. They pulled the wedding together in five days. My mother was never a well woman, having fought a bout of rheumatic fever when she was a child that left her heart weak. She died on Father's Day, 1949 at the age of 29 when I was three years old.
My father’s widowed mother moved to Brooklyn with her youngest son, my Uncle John, to live with us in Bay Ridge. The last thing a 60 year old woman wanted to do was take care of a three year old boy, but she made the sacrifice. The only thing she and my mother’s mother Tess who I called "Ma" but everyone else referred to as "The Chief" had in common was their devotion to the Catholic Church and the opportunity to mold me into being a priest. And it almost worked.
Like a career, I started as an altar boy and worked my way up to being our pastor, Bishop Edmond J. Reilly’s personal altar boy. The Bishop formed an alliance with my grandmothers by giving me the prime daily masses and making sure I watched Bishop Fulton J. Sheen instead of Milton Berle on Tuesday nights at nine. In fact when Bishop Reilly died in 1958, Bishop Sheen came to Our Lady of Angeles in Bay Ridge to deliver the eulogy and I was assigned to carry his bags. Sheen was one of my idols but at age 12, I was already a few inches taller than the charismatic though diminutive evangelist.
The Brochu-Condon-Morrissey Clan at my First Communion.
(l. to r.) Pa and Ma Condon, Jim, Dad, Uncle John, Nana, Aunt Helen Quain,
Aunt Betty Morrissey, Uncle Eddie and Aunt Jo Nash, Uncle Bobby Morrissey.
(How come nobody looks happy?)
A few months before Bishop Reilly died, I asked my father if we could go to Europe for the 100th anniversary of the Lourdes apparitions. I had seen “The Song of Bernadette” many times and wanted to see the locations for myself. Dad agreed, giving me many perks since I was an only child without a mother and booked an entire “Catholic Pilgrimage” of Europe which included all the great shrines of London, Paris, Brussels and Rome. The first stop was Shannon Ireland where I stopped the immigration process cold by stating my profession as altar boy. There were two priest-chaplains named Hewitt who were real-life brothers from Tom’s River, New Jersey. They also saw me as a future priest and bought me a black priest’s biretta which I wore all through the trip.
In Lourdes, I expected to see a full blown miracle only to witness a sick man fall out of his wheel chair and crack his head on the cement. The viewing of the mummified body of St. Bernadette proved more creepy than inspiring and the home in which she lived was far more upscale than the dank prison portrayed in the film.
The pinnacle of the trip came in Rome where we attended an audience of Pope Pius XII’s and I stood close enough to almost touch him. The presence of this living saint was marred when he opened his mouth to bless the crowd and he sounded like Gracie Allen with a bad Italian accent.
In Paris, we visited every church in the city and met a Bishop Boardman from Brooklyn, who as fate would have it, would become my pastor after the death of Bishop Reilly. Boardman was a ruddy-faced politician who could have been cast as a Senator as much as a prelate. When he did become our pastor, my father reintroduced himself and reminded the Bishop that we had met and spent time with him in Paris only a few months before. Boardman, ever the glad-hander said, “Of course I remember you. I remember you very well. And how’s your lovely wife?” “Dead,” answered my father, “for ten years.”
Pius XII's Audience in St. Peter's Square (1958)
Yes, as I entered the seventh grade it was all but decided that I would enroll in the minor seminary after graduation and take the first steps on my sacred path to being the first Brooklyn-born pope. And then my grandfather bought me a record player and that path was forever detoured. Pa, my mother's father, had bought the record player because I told everyone who would listen that I had sent away for a record album of Pope Pius XII singing Gregorian chant but had nothing to play it on. The record player arrived before the pope’s LP and so I went to the record store and picked up the first album I saw - Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun.
I raced home to test the sound of my new phonograph and heard my first overture. Then came the voice of Merman. Oh that voice. Oh my God, that voice. She sang “Doing What Comes Naturally.” Before I got to the next track, I replaced the needle and played it again. And again. Within a half hour I knew every word. My grandmother who lived with me, who we called Nana, was going out of her mind. Finally she came into the bedroom I shared with her and said, “Turn that screech owl off!”
“Don’t you like her?” I wanted to know.
“No, she’s a loudmouth multi-divorcee,” came the reply.
I didn’t know why my Nana had linked her singing power to her marriages and didn’t care about the connection. All I knew was that the voice inhabited every fiber of my body and perhaps had taken over my soul. After my grandmother went to sleep, I took the record player out to the living room and listen to the album all over again with my ear pressed against the speaker, the volume almost inaudible. My father came home with a half snootful, as usual, as asked me what I was listening to. Thinking it was permission, I turned the volume up full and Merman’s voice inhabited the room. Dad started singing along with her to “There’s no Business Like Show Business” and then said,“What a great show!”
“You saw her?”
Came the incredible response, “Saw her - I know her!”
“What do you mean you know her?”
“Her dad is the CPA for my company. Ed Zimmermann. He’s one of my best friends.”
“Did you ever meet her?”
“Of course I’ve met her. I see her all the time when she comes down to have lunch with Ed. I’ve even taken her out to dinner a few times.”
“Will she be my new mother?” I wanted to know.
“I don’t think so,” he said, “She’s married to the head of Continental Airlines. We’re not in the same league.”
“What does that mean, daddy?”
“It means I couldn’t afford her.”
“Nana hates her voice.” I offered.
“Well, she should hear her sing in person.”
“I want to hear her sing in person,” I said almost jumping up and down. “Where does she sing?”
“She sings on Broadway. She’s in Gypsy.”
For a moment, “in Gypsy” sounded like one word and very Latin - like the pope making a pronouncement “Ingipsie.”
“Can we go see it?” I begged.
“I don’t think you’re old enough.”
The noise had awakened my grandmother who stood in the hall just in time to hear me say, “But you took me to see naked women when we went to Paris last year.” My Uncle John, the original couch potato, was suddenly interested.
Nana choked, “Naked women?! What are you talking about. What naked women? What is he talking about, Pierre?”
Though my father was named Peter, Nana thought Pierre was a better first name to go with our French Canadian surname. My father had learned to defend himself all through grammar and high school every time one of the toughs yelled “Hey pee-in-the-ear” and dad almost killed my grandmother when he went to get his working papers and saw on his birth certificate that he had been christened Peter., not Pierre.
“It was a harmless little nightclub,” my father tried to explain.
“With naked women? Jimmy, go to bed. Your father and I need to have a good talk.”
I did as I was told and from the bedroom I could hear the argument continue. While we were in Paris, dad had taken me to a smoke filled basement dive where a dozen women came on a small stage and took off all their clothes. I wasn’t sure about what was happening since the first one came out dressed in a cowgirl outfit looking very much like Dale Evans. It was the first time I ever saw - as my father called them - “jugs” up close and personal. I was twelve, preferred looking at men, and yet I found myself with a strange tumescence.
Outside in the living room, dad was trying to be respectful of his mother. He tried to explain that we had gotten there by accident because the joint was next to a church. I guess he didn’t see the huge neon sign that kept flashing on and off reading, “Le Club Sexy.” After a few minutes more, I heard him say to her, “Oh, be quiet and go to bed.“ Nana came in seconds later. I pretended to snore so that the conversation wouldn’t continue and I wouldn‘t have to answer any questions.
I called my father at his office the next day and told him he had promised me to take me to see Gypsy. I knew he wouldn’t remember. I had often used that trick to get what I wanted - knowing dad would never remember because he was sloshed the night before. “Okay, I’ll call Ed and get Ethel’s house seats for the Saturday matinee - June 20th at 2:30 p.m.
Dad invited my grandmother and Uncle John to go with us, but she invoked the Legion of Decency which had condemned the musical as being too prurient for any catholic of any age to see. She would not go and she would not permit her youngest child to go, even though he was 36 years old.
My father gave the other tickets away to two actor friends of his, Matt Tobin and Otto “Babe” Lohmann. Ed Zimmermann, Ethel’s father met us in front of the Broadway Theatre on West 53rd Street and handed us the tickets - Ethel Merman’s own house seats, E 101-104. I sat on the aisle.
I had actually seen one other Broadway show - a straight play - when I was 11, do to my love of science fiction. I was home sick from school one day when I watched an afternoon interview show featuring an appearance by Cyril Ritchard. Ritchard had played Captain Hook brilliantly in the television presentation of Peter Pan opposite Mary Martin, but now he was promoting a show called Visit To A Small Planet by Gore Vidal. I loved anything that had to do with space travel and so when my father came home, I asked him to take me to see it. He didn’t make the connection with science fiction, only proud that his eleven-year-old son wanted to see a Gore Vidal play.
The show was at the Booth Theatre and I did not expect the lights to go down and to be in the dark before the curtain went up. I expected a planetarium show, but when the curtain rose we were in a suburban living room with very earthly characters whose every other word was “bastard’ or” son of a bitch. My grandmother, sitting next to me, jumped every time and epithet was uttered. The whole experience enchanted me but didn’t prepare me for the transforming experience that was Ethel Merman in Gypsy.
As we took our seats in the front row and listened as the orchestra tuned up, there was a buzz of excitement that filled the theatre. It was like church but with energy. The overture began, the trumpets blared, the curtain went up and Ethel Merman swept down the aisle right next to me shouting, “Sing out, Louise! Smile, baby!” By the time two hours had passed, I experienced a religious conversion the likes of which I had never felt in Lourdes or Rome. Visit To A Small Planet had been a three act play and I was shattered that the cast started taking its bows only after two acts. I didn’t want it to be over. It had to go on forever. And even though the show had been condemned by the Legion of Decency for some inexplicable reason, the girls in the burlesque scenes still wore scads more than those at Le Club Sexy.
When the house lights came on, my shaky legs barely got me out of my seat and carried me around the corner to the stage door where we were going to meet Mr. Zimmermann. He would then take us through to the backstage to meet his daughter. The doorman told us that Miss Merman was on the stage - waiting for us. We could go right out. It was like walking onto holy ground.
She was still in the same lavender dress she wore for Rose’s Turn, the electrifying finale of the show.
“Hiya, pop!” said Ethel as she greeted her dad. “Hiya, Pete,” she said as she gave my dad a kiss on the cheek. “And this must be Jimmy.”
Oh my God, she knew my name. I could feel the stage hands swirling around us putting the sets in order for the evening show but I couldn’t take my eyes off of Merman. My first thought was that she was taller than Bishop Sheen.
She must have thought me to be an idiot because I couldn’t answer any of her questions. “Did you like the show?” “How were the seats?” “Have you seen a Broadway show before?” “What grade are you in?” And then, the curtain of the Broadway Theatre went up and I looked out into the house with its rows of blue and gold seats and huge windows on either side of the stage.
Then came the question from Merman, “So what do you want to be when you grow up?” I always had a ready answer to that question which I had been asked hundreds of times, “I’m going to be a priest.” But this time, I had no answer except to stare into the empty Broadway Theatre and mumble, “This!”
The course of my life was forever changed that day. The road to Rome became the road to Broadway and worship of the Virgin Mary was transferred to the great Merm. I ended up seeing Gypsy a dozen times over the almost two years it played on Broadway and saw Merman every time after. She always greeted me warmly. Always had time.
A few years later, we had dinner with Ethel and her parents, Ed and Agnes, at Toots Shor’s Restaurant on West 52nd Street. It was a sad dinner because Ed was going blind and Ethel had to cut his meat for him and help move his food around the plate to find the pieces. Ed started crying, not wanting to be a burden to his family. He couldn’t work anymore because he couldn’t see the numbers in front of him - rendering him useless as a CPA.This realization seemed to hit at dinner with his daughter cutting his meat for him and little Agnes holding back the tears watching.
Ethel Merman and Me (1976)
Some twenty years later, in 1981, I worked with Merman and cried when I realized that she had experienced some kind of brain meltdown when she couldn’t remember the lyrics to a song she introduced in the 1930s. I called my friend Stan Freeman who had conducted for Ethel often and told him about the incident she had at the taping. “Getting old isn’t pretty,” he said. “If I ever get to that point, I think I’ll just end it all.” In January of 2001, he did just that.
Stan Freeman was my best friend for thirty years and I learned that one of the reasons Stanley was not a well-known name except for show business circles was that he did too many things too well. I believe Stan was one of the greatest piano players of the 20th Century. His most famous gig was playing the harpsichord on the Rosie Clooney recording of “Come On A My House.“ He composed two Broadway shows. The first was” I Had A Ball” in 1964 with Buddy Hackett which was a moderate success and in 1970, “Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen” which was one of the best known flops in the history of Broadway.
Clive Barnes review of the show caused the cast to picket him and the New York Times when he wrote a scathing assessment of the musical beginning with “I come not to praise Lovely Ladies, but to bury it!” And he did. The show which starred Ken Nelson, Ron Hussman and David Burns, closed after limping along for two weeks.
The funny thing about “Lovely Ladies” is that it wasn’t a bad show. Those who saw the show enjoyed it very much. It was not the greatest musical ever, but certainly not worthy of Barnes’s scorn. It was the wrong show for the wrong time. Nobody wanted to see the musical version of Teahouse of the August Moon, about soldiers occupying the Japanese island of Okinawa, while the Vietnam war was raging on. All-Singing, All-Dancing Asians (played by whites) wasn’t what the Broadway audiences were craving in 1971. But I saw almost every one of the 16 performances because one of the stars of the show was the man I loved. I had always been looking for another mother, but in David Burns I found another father. I was holding out for Joan Crawford to be my mommie, dearest.
And then came Crawford!
Me, Cathy Crawford, Joan Crawford, Cindy Crawford, Dad
Bio | Résumé | Current Appearances | Video Clips | Lectures | Jim's Books and Plays | Press and Reviews |
Photo Gallery | The Last Session Homepage | The Big Voice: God or Merman? Homepage | Contact
CHAPTER TWO: Latitudes and Attitudes
<><>July 1, 1960 - En Route to Rio De Janeiro>><>>
Just as our Bon Voyage party on the S.S. Brasil was peaking, dad’s drinking buddy, Bill King, came lurching into the cabin to announce that Joan Crawford had booked space somewhere on the ship and was sailing with us. I had no idea who Joan Crawford was but everyone in the room was thrilled about it. Mr. King, who was absolutely bombed, suggested we go to Crawford’s stateroom and introduce ourselves. I was trying to keep an eye on my grandfather, Dick Condon, who was also on his way to total oblivion since he wouldn’t relinquish his seat in our cabin and the other paartygoers kept pouring scotch down his throat.
Dad told me Joan Crawford was one of the greatest movie stars of all time - an Oscar winner - and suddenly I was interested. We formed a small welcome aboard committee, went down to the public room where Miss Crawford’s bon voyage party was in full swing and knocked on the door. After a moment, the door opened and there stood a beautiful lady in a black and white polka dot dress with a huge black picture hat framing her red hair.
I only got a glimpse of her before Bill King stepped in front of me and said, “Miss Crawford, my friends are sailing with you and I just wanted you to meet them.” Joan said a hello to no one in particular and started to close the door as Bill King put one foot inside and said, “Miss Crawford, may I kiss you.” Without seeing the reaction on her face, all I heard was a soft, sweet “No” as the door closed. We went back to our party.
One of the saddest things about the takeover of the terrorists these days is the demise of the bon voyage party on the great ships. Back in the sixties, anyone was welcomed aboard to celebrate the departure of their friends on an ocean voyage. For a fifty cent contribution to the Norwegian Seamen’s Fund, the ship was open to all visitors. Dad decided that we would go on a cruise the summer before I was shipped off to Military school.
The S.S. Brasil was the flagship of the Moore-McCormack Lines which was half freighter and half luxury passenger ship that made monthly voyages between New York and Buenos Aires with stops in Barbados, Caracas, Trinidad, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Montevideo. Joan was not the only celebrity aboard. The great theatrical caricaturist Al Hirschfeld was also sailing with his wife, Dolly, and daughter, Nina, who he immortalized by placing her name in all of his artwork. But Joan Crawford was the only person my father wanted to get to know. And he did. Biblically.
The announcement blasted through the stateroom, “All ashore that’s going ashore.” My grandfather tried to stand but couldn’t. The fourteen scotches he put down during the soiree had robbed him of his power of locomotion.
My mother’s father was a fascinating man who started out as a fireman in New York City when horses drew the trucks through the streets. He won the James Gordon Bennett Medal for heroism, the highest honor the Department could bestow on any of its fireman because he saved ten lives during the infamous Triangle Shirt Factory Fire in 191 But as we were preparing to sail, he was sloshed and incapable of movement. We propped him up against the door of the stateroom and told him to stand there as we found his hat and coat. When we turned around, he was gone.
We panicked because the ship was about to sail and Pa (as we called him) was gone. Not in the passageway. Not in the elevators. Not on the decks. Vanished. Dad was about to make arrangements for him to go all the way to Rio with us. The Promenade Deck was lined with partying passengers, throwing streamers and confetti to their friends on the shore. We looked down the pier to see if we spotted Pa but he was nowhere to be seen. Then, as I looked down to an opening in the hull on the lower part of the ship where there was a conveyer belt bringing food on. It suddenly stopped and began rotating the other way toward the dock. Pa appeared on the conveyer belt supported by two crew members holding him under both arms and was rolled off to shore.
The Brasil pulled out into New York harbor and began slowly sailing down the Hudson into the Narrows and passed the apartment house in which we lived. We didn’t sail under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge because it had not yet been built. I felt so lucky to live right on the Bay and I loved ships more than anything in the world. I would run to the roof early in the morning to see the new ships sail into the harbor on their inaugural call to New York, greeted by the fire boats spraying them with a rainbow-infused welcome. I even watched the Stockholm limp into the harbor the day after it rammed the side of the Andrea Doria and sank it. The sight of the ship with its bow seared off was chilling, especially after watching the footage of the great Italian liner sink the night before.
The first day at sea on the Brasil there was a mixer for all the teenagers on board so I went and met twin girls named Cindy and Cathy who were exactly my age . The cruise director, Danny Leone, hosted the party which lasted a few hours and made sure we knew the names of all the others kids our age on board. When the party was over, Cindy and Cathy invited me back to their cabin to play board games and I accepted. They wanted me to meet their mother, who was recently widowed. Always on the lookout for a new mother, I thought, “Why not?”
When we came into the cabin, their mother was sitting at the vanity table dying her hair. She greeted us all with a smile and welcomed a game of Scrabble on the stateroom floor. Within an hour, I knew I had found my perfect stepmother along with two built in stepsisters.
My father didn’t want any part of it.
“But daddy, she’s really beautiful!”
“I know a lot of beautiful women,” he snarled.
“And she’s a widow.”
“I don’t want to meet any widows,” he confirmed. “And I don’t want to get married again. I’m not getting married again. So don’t do any matchmaking because you’re just wasting your time.”
Back in the sixties, every night aboard a ship was a formal night with the ladies in elegant gowns and the men in tuxes. I always thought the guys had it easy because the tux was like a uniform - you didn’t have to decide what to wear - a tux was a tux - unless you had a white dinner jacket and then you had to decide.
Dad dressed early and looked like a movie star in his formal clothes. He went to the Captain’s “Welcome Aboard” cocktail party early in hope that his favorite movie star would show up and he could wangle an invitation for a dance. Alas, she was a no show. I still hadn’t made the connection that Cindy and Cathy’s mom with whom I had spent the afternoon was Joan Crawford. When the waiter came in to deliver her ice bucket he only addressed her as “Mrs. Steele.”
The Dining Room on the Brasil. This was Joan's runway to make an entrance.
Our table in the dining room of the Brasil was all the way at the back - a table for two against the wall. Just after dad had ordered his cocktail and I was pondering a double order of mashed potatoes, a smattering of applause began to sound at the entrance to the room. The applause grew to a roar and then a standing ovation by everyone in the room. Dad saw her at a distance and almost spit out his Chivas. >
“There she is. Omigod. There she is. Isn’t she beautiful? God, she looks great. Should I go say hello. No. I’ll meet her later.”
Although her table was next to the Captain’s she kept coming right toward us. Dad looked behind him to see who she was looking at only to come face to face with the wall. When he turned back, she was standing right in front of us beaming, Cindy and Cathy demurely and properly behind her.
“Jimmy, dear!” she started. “Don’t you look handsome in your dinner jacket? Thank you so much for spending the afternoon with us. What a good Scrabble player you are.” I looked to dad whose jaw was lying on the salad plate.
“And this must be Pete,” she continued. “I’ve been hearing a lot about you. Since you work on Wall street, I’m sure we have many friends in common - and we have a whole month together to find out. Shall we have a cocktail after dinner…and a dance perhaps?”
If you were to open a dictionary at that moment and look up the word speechless, you would find a picture of my father. He could barely utter a sound as he shook her outstretched hand and nodded. The girls also put their white gloved hands out but my father never took his eyes off Joan as he shook them. Even tough I was only 13, I could not help but notice that there was a spark between the two of them. Joan looked back over her shoulder as the maitre’ d led them to their own table and she gave dad a wink which had the effect of having his legs pulled out from under him.
Dad in the foreground having dinner at the Captains’s table on the S.S. Brasil
Knowing Joan was experiencing my first taste of what it was like to be a star. On the cruise down the East Coast of South America, we made stops at Sao Paulo, Rio De Janeiro, Montevideo and Buenos Aires and at every port the piers were jammed with local residents trying to get just a glimpse of the great Crawford. The turnout was massive. Joan was there on Pepsi business and scheduled a press conference for every stop. I couldn’t imagine how many steamer trunks she had brought since there was a new outfit for every city, a different dress for every day and she never wore the same evening gown twice in thirty days.
On the third night of the trip, my father did not come back to the cabin until morning. He woke me up at seven a.m. trying not to wake me up. I told him I was worried and went looking for him about three a.m. He told me he was spending time with a new friend. A few hours later, I ran into Cindy and Cathy. They couldn’t help me since their mother had a private bedroom in the suite. Dad didn’t show up for several nights and years later - after they stopped seeing each other and I was old enough to understand - he admitted to a torrid affair that lasted years after the ship returned to port.
After Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? was released, I went to see the film with my best buddy from grammar school, Joey Maresca. I kept telling Joey that the woman who played Blanche was my friend and though he knew I had met her on the Brasil several years before, refused to believe that she was indeed my “friend.” Joan lived at 2 East 70th Street at the corner of Fifth Avenue which wasn’t far from where we had seen the film.
“If you know her so well,” he challenged, “let’s go visit her.”
“Okay,” said I, “Let’s go.”
It was the middle of our Easter vacation and we were dressed, as my grandmother would say, ragamuffins. We got to the apartment door where the doorman looked down his nose at us and silently implied to just keep walking. Instead, we went up to him and I said, “We’d like to see Mrs. Steele please.”
“She not home,” he barked.
“She expecting us,” I lied. “And if she’s not home, Cindy and Cathy will be.”
He looked at us quizzically, cocking his head to the side somewhat like a beagle that had heard a high frequency sound, and went inside. We could see him on the phone as he looked back and forth before returning with a somewhat smile drooping under his nose.
“She said you could go right up.”
Joey looked as astonished as the doorman as we were escorted - not to the main elevator - but to the service elevator in the rear of the lobby.
Joan’s faithful housekeeper, affectionately known as Mamacita was standing in the kitchen as the elevator door opened onto the small service hallway.
“Jeeeemy!” she bellowed, enveloping me in her endless arms, “Missus is waiting for you. And the girls are here!” Then she added, “You know what to do!” Indeed I did. Before you could enter Joan’s apartment, you had to take off your shoes to prevent any outside dirt from creeping onto her pure white carpets. Things got off to a rocky start when Joey protested. I told him that was as far as he went if he didn’t. I couldn’t blame him. He shed his shoes to reveal a huge hole as with his big right toe sticking through it.
Mamacita escorted us through the immaculate white living room into the den/office where Joan stood behind her desk, framed by a large picture window overlooking Fifth Avenue and Central Park. Cindy and Cathy sat on couches on either side of the room, giving the impression that the scene had been staged. The girls were in matching pink sun dresses and Joan was put together as though the director was about to shout, “Action!”
Joan came around the desk and kissed me on each cheek. Cindy and Cathy followed suit. Joey was dumbstruck. The person we had just seen in Baby Jane was standing in front of him live and in person. Joan couldn’t have more gracious or welcoming, despite the fact that we were there uninvited.
“Thank you so much for stopping by. The girls are home for Easter and you were so kind to think of us.”
“Joan,” I started, “this is Joey Maresca. We just saw Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”
“I hope you enjoyed it,” she smiled.
“It was great,” we both stammered.
“Can I offer you something to drink?”
Joey answered first. It was an answer that sent chills down my spine.
“I’ll have a coke,” he said.
The girls’ eyes widened and they both looked at their Pepsi-wielding mother for guidance. Joan’s smile was implacable.
“I’m so sorry, Joseph” she offered. “We don’t serve Coke here. Wouldn’t you like a Pepsi?”
Joey winced. “No, I don’t like Pepsi!”
Cathy actually gasped audibly but Joan continued to smile. “You don’t?”
“No,” he said, “It’s too sweet!”
Still smiling, albeit now a frozen smile, she offered a glass of water.
The affair Joan had with my dad lasted about a year but my friendship with Joan endured until she died. From time to time, I would go up to the apartment and “hang” with Joan, still looking for the mother I had never known. Once I went to see her and this time she was actually expecting me. I even got to go up via the front elevator. When the door opened onto the foyer into the living room, a little old lady in a pink housecoat and babushka was waiting for me. I said, “Hi, I’m here to see Joan.” She stared at me with a half-smile, half-frown and said, “I don’t look that bad, do I?” We went into the kitchen where she was making bouillabaisse for a dinner party the next night - chain smoking and sipping vodka. The television was on in the background and a pizza commercial came on.
“What fun it would be to just go out for a pizza.“ she sighed.
“Come on, “ I said. “Let’s go for a pizza!“
“I can’t. It would take me an hour to get ready.“
I know I looked at her not understanding because she continued, “Don’t you know I can’t leave this house unless I’m Joan Crawford - and besides, you don’t need a pizza.”
Years later, I became very close with Lucille Ball, who was just the opposite. If the urge for a pizza came over her, she would throw on some lipstick and out the door we’d go.
From the very first time I met Joan she was on me from the start that I was way too fat and had to lose weight. This was to be an ongoing struggle lasting for years - within myself and with Joan. Almost every letter I (or my father) got from her over the years addressed the “problem.” For example:
August 19, 1964
I am distressed with the news about Jimmy’s weight - my God, fifty pounds. He must get on a diet. Send him to Dr. Jerome Klein at 1 East 69th Street, will you? He was very helpful with Cindy who weighs 164 now and should weigh 124. But Cindy has refused to work with the doctor and he has refused to work with her until she gets down to at least 155. Herbert Barnet’s niece went to Dr. Klein and she has trimmed herself down into the most beautiful young lady you ever saw. Have Jimmy checked thoroughly before you send him, naturally, but it would be a good idea. It would give him something to do and a responsibility of his own.
In 1966, when I was 20 years old, I wrote to Joan seeking guidance about what to do with the rest of my life. My father wanted me to study law and follow in his footsteps on Wall Street, but I had fallen in love with show business and was very influenced by Davy Burns. I wrote to Joan and even in trying to give me advice about my career path, she still managed to pick on me for being overweight.
March 10, 1966
How nice it was to receive your newsy letter. It’s interesting that you’ve done so many things in such a short time, but I think now, at twenty, you had better settle down into something you’re really going to do. You know that I am your friend at all times, but I must tell you that even though you are six feet four, 200 pounds is too much weight for you. But I am extremely proud that you lost 55 pounds.
You mentioned that you are trying to do what your father wants you to do. You’ve always been very close to him. I think he’s right and I think that Davy Burns is right - show business is rough. There are very few who make it like Davy Burns. It takes discipline beyond belief and work, work, work. Of course the other jobs you’ve been seeking take discipline too, but not nearly as much as acting. The other jobs you’ve been seeking require perhaps more knowledge college-wise. Acting requires knowledge of people and understanding of people.
I am going off on a business trip for Pepsi-Cola tomorrow, but will be back in New York around March 20th. If you would like to come up and have a talk with me, I would be delighted to see you again. Or you may surely call me on the telephone. My number is still Murray Hill 8-4500.
Bless you and have a nice talk with your father, okay? And I am always here if you need me.
April 5, 1967
Loved your letter but am so sad to hear that your weight is still a problem. Do take care and my love to you and your father.
February 13, 1968
How wonderful you have lost all that weight! I’m so proud of you. As you said, after getting over the first big hurdle, the rest should be a breeze. Stay with is now. God bless and my love to you and your dad.
November 29, 1968
I’m delighted you’re maintaining a B average at school but do push a little for some A’s! It’s too bad about your weight. Be a good lad and push away from the table while you’re still hungry, Jimmy dear - that’s the secret of dieting. And no between meal eating of any kind and no bread, butter, potatoes or deserts (sic).
All love, Joan
While Joan was concerned about my dieting, she had the kind of fast metabolism that precluded her from gaining even an ounce. Mine was, and is still slower than Lincoln Tunnel traffic at rush hour. In the course of my life I have gained and lost the weight of the Taj Mahal.
Joan gave me so much of herself in the seventeen years we were friends and she also gave me one of the greatest memories of my life - meeting President John F. Kennedy.
In late October, 1963 Joan called and asked my father to escort her to an affair at the New York Hilton where the President was to receive an award as father of the year from the Protestant Council of America. I would be home from military school and was also invited to go. The grand ballroom of the Hilton was packed and in the next room was a dinner for the Catholic Actors Guild presided over by actor Horace MacMahon and filmdom’s “Blondie,“ Penny Singleton.
What surprised me most about the evening was the lack of security. Our table was in the back while Joan sat on the dais near the president. People from all parts of the hotel just ambled in to get a glimpse of Kennedy and no one stopped them. I even walked from the back of the hall down to the stage to get a closer look and not one secret service agent or security guard tried to keep me from him.
I stood at the side of the ballroom - no more than fifty feet away from him - and was awed by the presence of the man. He was not only dynamic but incredibly handsome and charismatic. What I will never forget was the redness of his hair - bright, almost carrot red - a shade that never showed up in any color picture I ever saw of him.
Joan saw me standing to the side and when the president finished his speech to wild applause, she nodded for me to come closer to the edge of the dais where he was about to exit. Kennedy shook hands with everyone along the head table as he made his way out and I managed to get to the side where he was about to step off. Joan was next to him and waved for me to come forward. Still, no one tried to stop me. Kennedy was right next to me now, taller than I expected and Joan was next to him. He was about to go out the door when she said, “Mr. President, I’d like to introduce you to my friend, James Brochu.”
“How do you do, James.” said Kennedy as I shook his hand. “You’re a big lad. Do you play football?”
“No, sir,” I answered, “I’m on the speech and debate team.”
“Well, that’s fine,” he continued as he kept moving and was out the door. Two weeks later he was shot dead.
At another dinner a year earlier, held at the old Commodore Hotel on 42nd Street, Joan introduced me to another icon, Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt was giving a speech about the UN and presenting an award to Bob Hope. I actually worked with Mr. Hope ten years later and found him to be a completely nasty and horrible person - but more on that later.
I was wearing my high school uniform, a knock-off the cadet grays used by the United States Military Academy. Mrs. Roosevelt was very short and hunched over. Looking up at me with a cocked head, she saw my uniform and asked if went to West Point? “No, Mrs. Roosevelt,” I said, “I go to La Salle Military Academy on Long Island.”
“Who are your teachers?” she continued.
“The Christian Brothers of St. LaSalle,” I answered proudly.
“Oh,” she said with obvious disappointment. “Papist!”
The last time I talked to Joan was Easter, 1976. It was the first and only time she had called just to chat. I could tell that she had been drinking and kept calling me by my father’s name, “Pete.” I would say, “This is Jimmy, Joan.”
“Ah yes, Pete. How is Jimmy? Nice boy. Too fat.”
On May 10, 1977 I was riding in the back of a cab going north on Market Street in San Francisco. I looked out the window and saw a newspaper hawker holding up the evening edition of The Chronicle. The headline blared “Joan Crawford Dead.” It was the end of a friendship and the end of an era. My friend Ray Stricklyn was Bette Davis’ publicist. He played her son in The Catered Affair and then went to work for super publicist John Springer. Upon the news of Joan’s demise he called Bette and said, “Bette, Joan Crawford died.” Bette’s response: “Eh! Just cause you die, it doesn’t mean you change.”
* * *