Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

caravantoozAnyone who has ever availed themselves of the Off-Off-Broadway experience in New York City, whether as a performer, a crew member or simply “one of those little people out there in the dark,” will truly sink their literary teeth into Caravan to Oz, a splendid history of one family’s journey into a most exciting period in the American theater in the Big Apple. Anyone who hasn’t ever availed themselves of the Off-Off-Broadway experience in New York City, whether as a performer, a crew member or simply “one of those little people out there in the dark,” will truly sink their literary teeth into the book all the same. And in any case, this two-hundred-and-seventy page tome laden with stunning photography, emerges as a wondrous history lesson even to those not necessarily theater-oriented. To be succinct, it’s nearly impossible to put down once begun reading. The book bears vague similarities to Edie, the smash recounting of Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick, except that in this case the story is actually told by the subjects in question, along with additional input by such legends of the Off-Off-Broadway scene and the cultural world at large as Tim Robbins, Bob Heide, Robert Patrick, Crystal Field, Mike Figgis, Mark Lancaster, Ritsaert ten Cate, and the late Ellen Stewart.

The caravan begins its initial drive down life’s highway in the Westchester, New York enclave of Bronxville, where actor-writers George Edgerly Harris II (hereafter referred to as George Sr) and his wife Ann launched a family of six eventual children, namely and in order George Edgerly Harris III (hereafter referred to as G3), Walter Michael Harris, Frederic Joseph Harris, Jayne Ann Harris (today Harris-Kelley), Eloise Alice Harris (today Harris-Damone) and Mary Lucille Harris, hereafter referred to as Mary Lou. After the family relocated to Belleaire, a suburb of Clearwater in Florida, and spent several years there in which all six of the children proved themselves extremely adept at both performance and self-producing various extravaganzas, the family once again headed north and took up residence on the Lower East Side, slowly assimilating themselves into the world of Off-Off-Broadway which had already begun coming into its own ten or more years earlier with the advent of LaMaMa Experimental Theater Company, the Living Theater, and the Caffe Cino. By the late 1960s, Walter Michael (not merely an actor-singer but a very impressive and self-taught musician) had established himself as the youngest original cast member of the hit musical Hair on Broadway, while George Sr took a role in The Great White Hope and subsequently took the show on the road, and mother Ann assumed a featured part in the classic horror film The Honeymoon Killers, alongside Shirley Stoler and Tony LoBianco. G3, meanwhile, trotted off to San Francisco to find his own path and, aside from being reportedly the first person to stick flowers into the gun barrels of the police during the Summer of Love in Haight-Ashbury while living on a commune, also began exploring drag artistry under the name Hibiscus as a founding member of the pioneering troupe The Cockettes. Upon his self-imposed termination in Hair, Walter Michael also ventured to Northern California to join his big brother but opted for a more spiritual path, ultimately becoming a monk of the Holy Order of MANS (although he did eventually return to the theatrical fold after a fashion). Once reborn as the theater company The Angels of Light, the girls of the family along with their mother settled into a happy existence as literally the First Family of Off-Off-Broadway besides appearances on a triumphant tour of several European countries.

The story also has some disturbing twists and turns. Hibiscus ended up as one of the earliest-known victims to succumb to the AIDS crisis. It’s also notable that brother Fred offers no input to the book whatsoever, leaving a reader wondering exactly what his side to the story might be. The Harris Sisters, however, continued to find fame as a trio within the cabaret club spectrum during the 1980s and 1990s (occasionally making appearances with the renowned downtown actor-singer Bobby Reed), and the entire book is interlaced with lyrics written by mother Ann for such shows as The Sheep and the Cheapskate, There Is Method In Their Madness, and Sky High. It’s almost a little too much to take in upon just one reading, to realize exactly how incredible this superb family of eight managed to accomplish in one lifetime together. But by the last page, one can’t help but feel a sense of peace, as well as the hope that anything in life is truly possible given the right brand of dedication and talent.

Caravan to Oz is available by ordering here. Do yourselves a favor and grab a copy.

About seven years ago, a dear friend of mine and I sat at a little bar on Ninth Avenue in the West 40s one night, knocking back a few and having some laughs, when he suddenly said to me, “You know you’re my favorite journalist of all time, right? Well, when the time comes, I want you to write my obituary.” I said, “Oh, honey, STOP!! Don’t be morbid!! And anyway, you’re gonna bury us all!!” He said, “No, no, I won’t. People might remember who I am, maybe for a little while, but I want you to promise me that you’ll write my obituary when the time comes.” So I said, “Fine. Should I ask if you have a title for this little opus I’m supposed to write?” He said, “Yes. I want you to call it Requiem for a Paperweight.” And we laughed and ordered another round and smoked a few more cigarettes as usual, and I figured that was the end of it. But it wasn’t. He died this morning. And writing this article may well be one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do, but I’m keeping the title as per his wishes.

The world has lost a wonderful gentleman named Ron Palillo. Most people probably know him best as the iconic character Arnold Horshack from the megahit sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter on ABC for four seasons. Yes, he of the signature gravelly laugh, dorky clothes, comical Brooklyn accent and explanation of his moniker (“I’ll have you know that Horshack is a very old and RESPECTED name. It means, ‘The cattle are dying.'”) Whether he was joining a religious cult, becoming a figure not unlike Peter Finch in the movie Network or merely hanging out with his fellow Sweathogs, Horshack was to the 1970s what Urkel was to the 80s or Screech was to the 90s, in pop-culture parlance. And millions will never forget him or the joy he brought to the cultural landscape.

But I don’t want to talk about Horshack right now. I want to talk about Ron, the man I was blessed to know so well for over twenty years, and the joy he gave me personally as a friend.

In 1990 I got my first job in journalism, writing reviews and features for a now-defunct magazine called Night & Day. One feature of which I was particularly proud was an interview with my dear friend Shirley Stoler, which gave me great pleasure to write. So a few days after it was published, I was hanging out at Don’t Tell Mama on Restaurant Row having a drink at the bar when all of a sudden this guy came over and started staring at me. A little bit short, not a bad body and really luminescent skin. He looked an awful lot like Ron Palillo, but something was different; maybe he’d had his nose bobbed or something. So I smiled at him. He said, “Do you happen to be Andrew Martin?” I said yes, I was. “Oh, I love your writing so much! I was just reading your interview with Shirley Stoler the other day and I absolutely adore her. My name’s Ron Palillo.” I nearly spit my drink out of my nose. “I THOUGHT that was you!! HI!! Oh, I’m so pleased to meet you!! HUGE fan!! So you’re visiting New York, then?” By this point his lover Joey came over and joined us, Ron made introductions and explained that no, he and Joe were living in New York now, they’d just moved back and gotten a place in Chelsea. By three or four drinks later, the three of us were already great friends. They literally poured me into a cab to take me home to Queens after I gave them my phone number and they gave me theirs, and we all promised to see each other soon. Now, everybody knows how it works in entertainment circles in New York; you always promise you’ll see each other again and nine times out of ten you don’t. But this, I learned, is why nobody should have ever underestimated Ron Palillo.

About three weeks later, on a Friday night, I took my buddy Jim Loftus to see someone’s cabaret act at Rose’s Turn on Grove Street (I have absolutely no recollection whose cabaret act it was, so I apologize to whomever they are and I hope I gave you a nice review). We went downstairs after the show to sit by the piano and hear my friend Peter Gloo play and my other friend Elaine Brier sing, when all of a sudden Ron and Joe walked in. As soon as they saw me, they made a beeline for us. “Andrew! Why haven’t you called? You promised!! Never mind, it’s nice to see you now. May we join?” Of course I said yes and introduced them to Jim. Who, once they were seated, said, “Am I dreaming this? Did you honestly just introduce me to Arnold Horshack and now he’s sitting here with us?” I assured him it wasn’t a dream. We all got lit as lords and had a wonderful evening.

So, for at least the next year and longer, I kept in touch with them (I was never quite as friendly with Joe as I was with Ron, but Joe was always very happy to see me wherever it was). In due time, Night & Day Magazine folded, I was then moved over to the New York Native newspaper and then I parted company with them also, and after a few months away from it all except for occasional freelancing at magazines like Details and Lear’s, I started my own magazine, CaB. So I asked Ron if he might possibly be so gracious as to grant me an interview. Believe me, he needed no bidding; he was delighted to know that I’d be writing about him, and invited me to swing by the apartment he and Joe were subletting in Chelsea. It was really a little nothing of a building, a very innocuous brownstone,  and then I got to their apartment and nearly died. It was the most luxurious duplex I have ever seen, and I’ve been to some pretty luxurious duplexes in my day. I said, “You and Joe actually LIVE here? This isn’t a movie set or something?” He said, “Andrew, it’s called being on a hit show for several seasons.”

Then we did the interview. He spoke of growing up in Connecticut and how lonely he was most of the time as a kid, how much he wanted to be a star, how his gravelly laugh as Horshack was actually his father’s death rattle as he lay dying of cancer, how frustrated he’d always been after Kotter because nobody would take him seriously as an actor, and all kinds of other things nobody else could have possibly known about him. Then he showed me his drawings; he’d begun working as an illustrator for children’s books (one in particular, The Red Wings of Christmas, had been written by his dear friend Wesley Eure, who was best known as the star of the Sid/Marty Krofft series “Land of the Lost” and also as the longtime lover of Richard Chamberlain). He also spoke with desperate passion about his best friend, actress Debralee Scott, whom he loved more than life itself. It was an amazing interview and frankly left me more than a bit dazed.

For the next decade, Ron and I continued to have an absolute blast. He and Joe and I had mutual friends in the form of a couple, two wonderful guys named Woody Leatherwood and Larry Scheraldi, who threw the most wonderful parties imaginable at their apartment on West 39th. (By this point, Ron and Joe had taken a new apartment on 49th Street). I recall one night in particular when Ron and I and our other friend Tommy Femia decided to play “The Movie Game” This is where the first person names a movie, the second person names someone who was in that movie, the third person names another movie that person was in, and it just goes around and around until someone can neither name a person or a movie that goes with the subject. The whole point is to be as obscure as possible so you stump the next person. Ron really thought he was gonna get Tommy (the world’s best Judy Garland impersonator) out of the game when, after I named Vigil of the Night as the movie and Ron volunteered the name of Rita Page, Tommy looked at both of us and in his best Garland voice said, “She played my mother in Little Nellie Kelly.” Ron’s jaw dropped to the floor and he said, “That’s it. I’m out of the game. I give up.” It was adorable.

Then, in ’02, my ex-husband and I had four friends from out of town staying with us for Gay Pride Week, and one night after we took everybody to see the Empire State Building, we went to the same bar I mentioned in the first paragraph, on Ninth Avenue between 45th and 46th. We were all having a ball, then I got up to go to the bar and get another drink, and who should be standing at the jukebox but Ron. I said, “Oh, no you’re NOT, Ron Palillo!!” He turned around, saw me, came over and gave me a huge hug hello and then joined our table. The guys were absolutely beside themselves that “Andrew knows Arnold Horshack!!”

Ron was an absolute and understandable mess the day Debralee Scott died in 2005. It wasn’t hard to comprehend why; they were as close as brother and sister, and she and he and Joe were always constantly in each others lives. But I’d never seen him so upset and distraught. Hence, the night he insisted on meeting me for drinks at that bar. And also hence why he decided that I should write his obituary.

One of the very last times I spoke to him by phone was after he appeared in the opening number of the TVLand Awards. He said, “I hate that they trotted me out as HIM one more time, but I made a little cash and got to see some old friends. If Alison Arngrim (Nellie Oleson from “Little House on the Prairie”)  hadn’t been there I never would have gotten through it. Hey, do you know her?” I said that I most certainly did. He said, “Isn’t she the best? One of the funniest women on earth, and a brilliant actress, outrageously intelligent and the warmest creature you could imagine,” and he just sang her praises for well over a half hour.

Ron and Joe moved to the Palm Beach area a couple of years ago, and while Ron wasn’t particularly happy about it, he was certainly proud of their home. Our very last conversation was a couple of months ago, in Facebook Chat. He was extremely worried that he might have had cancer from all the smoking, he said he’d developed a cough that sounded a lot like his father’s, but that he’d begun seeing a respiratory therapist and that so far was so good. Then this morning, Joe came downstairs, saw Ron clutching his chest, called an ambulance and they set off for the ER, where he died shortly after arriving.

And so here we are tonight. Ron is gone and my heart is aching. But it’s not aching for myself. It’s aching for Joe. It’s aching for his siblings. It’s aching for all the social misfits out there like I was, who knew that in Arnold Horshack we had a friend for life. It’s aching for those people who were ever lucky enough to know him. And by now I’ve lost enough friends to also know that it’s not about all the things we didn’t get to do or having the chance to say a final goodbye, but all the things we DID get to do and all the chances we had to say a hello.

Thus, all there is left to say is one last hello. Rest in peace, my wonderful Paperweight. I love you.

The dual phenomena of “spoken-word” and “slam poetry” have infiltrated modern culture like a requisite epidemic. Harkening back splendidly to the days of beatnik nightlife, when throngs would gather in darkened coffeehouses to hear poetry delivered by the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso and applaud with finger-snapping, the art form has received a miraculous re-awakening ever since Thaddeus Rutkowski began reviving it at such venues as Jackie 60 in the early 1990s, whenceupon it was taken up by all manner of poets both amateur and professional who began plying their cornucopia of wares throughout New York and the globe. One of the most stellar of the slam poets to emerge in the last ten years is most certainly a gentleman by the unusual name of Taylor Mali. A New York City WASP by birth and a schoolteacher by profession, the last calendar year has seen him emerge as viral on YouTube and other Internet broadcast media because of his poem What Teachers Make,” which has garnered nearly four million hits on one website alone. The one-man show Teacher! Teacher! would soon follow thereafter, and win a major comedy prize. A follow-up, entitled “The The Impotence of Proofreading,” has been equally successful. Since that time, he has published several books, created the New Teacher Project (later renamed Quest for 1,000 Teachers), recorded a number of CDs and also loaned his voice to narrating various projects, and for a time became the president of Poetry Slam, Inc. Though fame and tireless work have taken him throughout the world as both educator and performer, he mercifully found the time to grant an interview to The Andrew Martin Report. And we couldn’t feel more honored or privileged to have been so thusly indulged.

ANDREW MARTIN: Can you describe your upbringing as a New York City WASP? You seem to have a long lineage that goes back several centuries. Conversely, what was your own school experience like as a student? Where did you attend from K-12, and where did you go to college? Even more conversely, was there any one teacher in particular who inspired you to become a teacher and later an advocate for education?

TAYLOR MALI: My WASP upbringing was pretty standard stuff, really. We named our houses, named our cars, and ONLY named our dogs after local bodies of water. Everyone had a trust fund and was told never to talk about it with anyone. I attended The Collegiate School, established by the Dutch in 1628, just about 30 years before my earliest ancestor was born on the island. Another branch of the family that would one day combine to produce me had already been living in the country for almost one hundred years, having landed in Salem sometime in the 1500s. I went to Bowdoin College in Maine. Then Oxford University for a summer of drama school. Then eventually Kansas State University for an MA in English Lit/Creative Writing. It was there that I discovered my passion for teaching. So there was no single teacher that did it. Rather, the love was born of exigency.

AM: How long had you been teaching before you decided to immerse yourself in the spoken-word art form? Did the two automatically go hand in hand?

TM: The spoken word came first by about three years. I performed a poem at Oxford as part of a talent show among the actors, and it went over REALLY well. That was summer 1987, and I credit that with being my first spoken word piece. Three years later, at a poetry reading in San Francisco, I performed another piece (that would go on to become the poem “I Could Be a Poet”), and it solidified my understanding that performing a poem well was just as important as writing it well. That fall I left for Kansas, unaware that the first National Poetry Slam was coming to the SF Bay Area. Had I stayed in the Bay Area, I probably would have discovered the poetry slam a few years earlier than I did, but the craft I learned at KSU might have taken we much longer to develop. But to answer your question more directly, teaching and poetry go hand in hand because they are both about instruction and delight.

AM: Was it ever difficult, or even surreal, to have to balance being a teacher on one hand with being a spoken-word artist on the other?

TM: No, never. I treated one as a kind of performance, and the other as a kind of lesson.

AM Was “What Teachers Make” actually inspired by a real event? If not, what inspired it? Likewise “Proofreading.”

TM: There really was an incident with a lawyer at a New Year’s Eve Party (in 1997) that was the triggering subject of “What Teachers Make.” I’m sure he didn’t phrase his question that way (“Be honest, what do you make?”); that was me using poetic license. But more importantly, even if the lawyer HAD asked the question that way, I am not witty or brave enough to have been able to answer his question in any form similar to what became the poem “What Teachers Make.” The poem is totally what I WISH I had said. “Proofreading” came from repeated attempts by my computer to correct the spelling of my name; I tell people that my spell checker suggested Taylor Mali might have been a botched attempt on my part to spell “Toilet Malice,” but I think I made that up.

AM: Was it ever surprising when “Teachers” began to go so viral so quickly?

TM: Yes. Every bit of attention that my work has received has been surprising to me.

AM: What is the New Teacher Project exactly, and what has it accomplished?

TM: I’ve had to change the name of the project because there already is a great non-profit called “The New Teacher Project,” founded by Michelle Rhee in 1997. Their executive director called me to say their lawyers recommended sending me a cease & desist letter, but she said no way because they are all fans of mine! Anyway, my Quest for 1,000 Teachers was a goal I gave myself in 2000, which started quite informally: I would help convince a thousand people to become teachers through the way I talk about the profession. Gradually, I got more serious about how I kept track of the teachers on my list, and then I promised to cut off twelve inches of my hair when I reached my goal. Everything came together for the publication of  my book “What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World,” and early in April I approved that thousandth teacher and cut my hair live onstage.

AM: Did you particularly enjoy the process of writing your books? Was there anything you disliked about the process? I ask the same question about the CDs you’ve recorded.

TM: Only the writing of “What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World” felt like writing a book because it’s the only one where I really had to hit the chair every day and turn out pages whether I wanted to or not. My two other books and all of my CDs are collections of poetry, and so were produced/compiled more episodically.

AM: Tell us about Poetry Slam Inc. and your experience of being their president.

TM: I was the first president after Marc Smith, the founder of the poetry slam and PSI’s “president for life.” You could argue that I was the perfect person to succeed Marc, but my tenure was marked by what is considered the WORST National Poetry Slam ever! That was a bad year for me, 2004; my wife died, and I’d just rather forget it all.

AM: We all know that Teacher! Teacher! won a solo prize at the Comedy Arts Festival in ’01. Are there any plans to bring it back?

TM: There should be, shouldn’t there? No. But it’s high time I wrote another solo show.

AM: You’ve also won at least one award for narrating The Great Fire. How does providing voice work for those projects you’ve not personally created differ from work on those you have?

TM: It’s so much easier to just swoop in and be The Voice. But it’s harder in that you have to internalize the syntactical rhythms of the author and make them your own. I like reading aloud (especially to a beautiful woman, curled up on my chest, smiling).

AM: Where do you see yourself five years from now, and what frontiers would you still like to conquer?

TM: I’ll still be doing what I’m doing, traversing the globe teaching poetry. But I’ll be better at it, and I might be based somewhere else. I’d like to teach online poetry classes using some sort of video Skype PAID conference call type service that probably already exists.

Wherever life may take him next, Taylor Mali is sure to go down in performance history as a force of nature made of lightning. Anyone unfamiliar must acquaint themselves with his work. After all, those who can, do. Those who can’t, well…

If the MAC Awards have become known as the Tonys of cabaret, the Bistro Awards have certainly become its equally-glittering counterpart. Launched in 1985 by the late and legendary cabaret journalist Bob Harrington in his “Bistro Bits” column in Back Stage, then under the editorship of Sherry Eaker, it was initially just a list of winners before evolving into a live awards ceremony in 1990 at the now-defunct Eighty Eight’s. Recipients have included Dionne Warwick, Carol Lawrence, Larry Kert, Dixie Carter, Cleo Laine, Eartha Kitt, Mario Cantone, Joy Behar, the team of Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney, and far too many more to list in appropriate completion. This year’s ceremony, which takes place on the evening on Monday, April 23rd at 6:30 PM at Gotham Comedy Club (208 West 23rd Street, between 7th and 8th Avenues), features an equally-impressive roster of cabaretfolk and theaterniks; these include Rita Gardner, Billy Stritch, Terese Genecco, Shaynee Rainbolt, Lauren Fox, Billie Roe and Parker Scott among others. The four most prominent awards of the evening, however, are being bestowed by an impressive lineup; for one, jazz legend Annie Ross will present Warren Vache with Ongoing Excellence as a Jazz Instrumentalist. George Faison gives Dee Dee Bridgewater an award for Ongoing Artistry in Jazz. Marvin Hamlisch bestows Outstanding Contribution to American Popular Song to Melissa Manchester. And the Bob Harrington Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented by legendary columnist Liz Smith to Kaye Ballard.

As is well known, Ballard has managed, in a spectacular career than spans nearly seven decades, to conquer Broadway musicals (The Golden Apple, Carnival! and The Pirates of Penzance among others), film (A House is Not a Home, The Ritz, the original Freaky Friday), television (as a co-star with Eve Arden on The Mothers-in-Law), and every manner of concert and nightclub stage ever since her career began as a touring player with Spike Jones in the late 1940s. More recently, she toured cabarets and clubs throughout the nation in the show Doin’ It For Love, along with Liliane Montevecchi and Lee Roy Reams, and she’ll be coming back to New York in June for a one-woman blockbuster evening at Feinstein’s. One may call the lady who began as Caterina Balotta in Cleveland anything they like, but what they must call her first and foremost is a survivor who has seen it all. And The Andrew Martin Report couldn’t be more honored that she found the time to grant us a brief interview from her home in Palm Springs in preparation of the awards next week.

ANDREW MARTIN: What’s the most exciting/gratifying thing about being the recipient of this award?

KAYE BALLARD: Well, just looking at the people who’ve received it before me. Cleo Laine, Eartha Kitt, people that I know/knew and respected. I’m so flattered. I sometimes look back on my life and all of the unexpected things that have happened, and this just happens to be the latest one. Not bad for eighty-six. But I look pretty good, no? (Laughs).

AM: Had you been familiar with the Bistro Awards before now?

KB: Well, I knew Bob Harrington, and I’d heard about it, but I didn’t really know what it was. I knew of the MAC Awards, but not the Bistros. Although they sounded more prestigious. I also want to thank Gretchen Reinhagen for doing her show, because she really kept my name alive in cabaret. But what do awards really mean? I’m just happy to be alive. It would have been nice to win an Emmy or a Tony, but Gracie Allen never won one either. You know, I come from a time when actors couldn’t even get a hotel room, or had to use the back door.

AM: Are you a particular follower of any of your fellow recipients?

KB: Of course! I LOVE Melissa Manchester. And Dee Dee Bridgewater. She’s really wonderful. But I’ve also seen two acts in the last year that I don’t think anyone can touch; one was the Callaway sisters, Liz and Ann Hampton, and the other was Christine Ebersole. So being part of cabaret now, along with such wonderful people, is gratifying beyond words.

AM: What’s your impression of how cabaret has changed/grown/not grown since your first emergence as a star?

KB: It hasn’t grown. It was so much better when I started. There was the Pierre, the Plaza, the Bon Soir, etc. They had an elegance about them, in a strange way. It was an honor to play those places because they had a built-in elegance. I worked with people ranging from Mae Barnes and Pearl Bailey to the Smothers Brothers. Nowadays, there’s too much vulgarity. I’ve worked with people like Bert Lahr and Jimmy Durante and Shecky Greene, who always had total class. I’m so sick of performers who feel compelled to be vulgar. My mentor was Henny Youngman, who never worked blue. I’m very much opposed to working blue. Jack Benny once said, “Funny is funny.” And I agree. As Fred Ebb, who was my writer, once wrote, “Whatever happened to class?”

AM: Tell us about Doin’ It For Love.

KB: It was such a thrill. Lee Roy Reams is the quintessential song and dance man, and Lilliane Montevecchi is so much of something from the past, just an elegant and sophisticated Frenchwoman from another era. So between them and the combination of what I do, it just worked beautifully.

AM: Is there any chance you’ll come back to New York with a solo show any time soon?

KB: Well, as I say, I’m doing Feinstein’s on the 17th of June. I can’t wait!! It’s really what I did in Doin’ It For Love. I’ve always believed that the best of the past is meant to last. It’s all the stuff I used to do, and I also talk some truisms. I think it’s gonna be a good show. David Geist is playing for me, and he’s just sensational. I found him in Santa Fe. He’s the closest thing I’ve ever found to Arthur Siegel, who was my dear heart, as we all know.

AM: We know you had a strong attachment to Arthur Siegel, both as a singer/instrumentalist and a composer. Those of us who attended Arthur’s memorial will never forget your speech or the wonderful duet you performed with Sandy Stewart. Do you have any particular favorite songwriters now for theater and cabaret? How does the new crop differ from yesterday’s greats?

KB: I LOVE Billy Charlap. He is fantastic. And I just love Marc Shaiman. The problem is, I love melody, and there’s not a lot of melody to be had nowadays. Not what I call melody. This is why I loved Arthur so dearly. He worshiped Jerome Kern, so he always came up with a great melody.

AM: How do you feel about the award being presented by Liz Smith?

KB: Oh, she’s one of my closest friends. She was my road manager at one point when I was doing Top Banana. She’s one of the brightest women I’ve ever known, besides being the kindest columnist ever. I’ve never known her to be remotely vicious. It’s an honor to know that she’s presenting the award to me.

AM: What advice can you give to some young women out there who think, “I want to be the next Kaye Ballard?”

KB (laughs): Does anyone really want to be me? I can’t imagine! But seriously, what I would say is to look at what came before you and then look where you’re going. I’ve always looked where I was going. And you should never think anything is old-fashioned. The great ladies of British comedy, like Bea Lillie, Joyce Grenfell, Hermione Baddeley, these are my heroines and the women I wanted to be. I feel the same about Patricia Routledge. My feeling is, I’d rather be Gone With The Wind than Saturday Night Fever, and I would recommend that anyone who wants to follow in my footsteps do the same. Because the truth is, I got a lot more out of it.

It is a grateful worldwide audience that will continue to get as much out of Kaye Ballard as she has to give. This humble reporter will most certainly be there on the 23rd and looking forward to it!

(Note: All who are reading this can purchase tickets for a five-dollar discount!! That’s $55 for each General Admission ticket, or $90 for Premium (includes pre-show champagne reception and priority seating)!! Just click here, scroll to the bottom of the page, and click “Donate.” Type in how many tickets you want at either $55 or $90, and you can pay with a credit card (PayPal not required; a credit card should do just fine). You can also send them a check if you’d rather; message me privately for the details. And don’t forget, ALL ticketholders are invited to an After Bistros supper buffet and party!! Hope to see you there!!!)

Nearly two decades after slaying Broadway audiences in such shows as Godspell, Grease and Working, as well as notable roles in film and television, Robin Lamont switched gears entirely when she returned to school for a law degree, and spent the next several years as a respected Westchester County Assistant District Attorney while also being a wife to loving husband Ken and mother to her cherished sons. She switched gears again even more recently, and has now combined her love of entertaining audiences with her love of the legal process by making her debut as a brilliant novelist with the suspense/crime drama genre. The result is If Thy Right Hand, for which she has done a bang-up job in more ways than one. It’s a captivating thrill ride that is certain to keep the reader guessing right up until the last page, and then wondering further exactly what happened to the characters once the story was concluded.

Our protagonist, Ilene Hart, is everything we’d expect from an Assistant District Attorney so devoted to her work with the sex-crimes unit of a small town in New York State; she’s a barracuda in the courtroom and always makes sure justice is served. However, the private Ilene is battling personal demons right and left on the homefront by way of her long-term love relationship with police chief Matt Bingham and strong conflicts from her past regarding her parents, plus her struggles with nineteen-year-old son Sam, a high-functioning victim of Asperger’s Syndrome besides a statistical genius, and the slightly younger Frankie, at the textbook throes of adolescent behavior whenceupon entering sixth grade. Ever the crusader in the area of pedophilia and prosecution of same, Ilene finds herself drawn into an investigation of what might well be a serial murder of convicted sex offenders, further complicated by local unrest within the school district, by a public who seek vigilante perpetration on behalf of the youth of the community with a blind eye towards anything more or less than abject punishment. As if these particular highways and byways of her life weren’t complicated enough, Sam suddenly finds himself a victim of controversy when accused by two local youngsters of molesting them sexually, which leads Ilene onto an entirely new and unexpected battlefield. Though the charges are eventually dropped, Ms. Hart soon discovers herself at her most challenged on every level…and at her most vulnerable.

What Lamont has done here with her narrative is really quite astonishing for a novice author; every single character, from the most in-your-face to the most virtually-invisible, simply bursts off the page at every turn. It’s at times almost impossible not to love Ilene Hart or at least feel her unthinkable plight, and at other moments extremely difficult to warm to her. What the reader will feel on every single page of the book, however, is complete and utter respect for her, and possibly wish we could know her in real life just to say a kind word or offer a friendly hug when times are particularly tough. Which, in this book, are copious but necessary. And once the pieces fall into place about exactly who is at the evil center of this seamless tale, the reader is certain to feel nothing less than utterly gobsmacked, for want of a better term. The story leads to a climax which is utterly chilling, and necessarily so. And that is absolutely to Lamont’s credit; she literally grabs us by the throat and doesn’t let go, even long after the last syllable of the last sentence.

If Thy Right Hand can be ordered via Amazon by clicking here, or by visiting finer bookstores everywhere. It makes for not only a worthwhile read, but an important new step on the journey of life for the woman many only knew for being the voice behind the hit song “Day by Day.” You simply can’t go wrong by ordering a copy, or several to pass along to friends. Yes, it’s THAT good.

If nothing else can be said about Gregory Murphy’s debut novel Incognito, aside from how marvelously the gentleman has utterly and perfectly captured the New York City of one hundred years ago, it is his impeccable and inherent gift for research about the period and the inhabitants therein. His wondrous imagery bursts off the page with total resplendence, and aside from how joyously the narrative reads, the story provides the most miraculous ability for a history lesson, likened as rain brought to a thirsty soil.

William Dysart is a remarkable young attorney to the manor born, whose world contains no room for the demons that have tormented him since the disappearance of his mother while a small boy. Married to Arabella, to whom the daily papers refer as the most beautiful woman in New York, Dysart seems to have the entire world on a string; his father and stepmother possess a significant fortune, he and wife make constant appearances at all the parties one really should attend to maintain a social standing, and he’s in contention for a tremendous future at the law firm governed by managing partner Philipse Havering.

That is, until society dowager Lydia Billings steps in, and demands the firm’s help in removing one Sybil Curtis from a small home on the Billings property in the Long Island enclave of Lloyd’s Neck. Which wouldn’t normally be problematic but for the fact that Ms. Curtis, a thoroughly bewitching creature, has more secrets up her sleeve than a political strategist, and it’s a mere matter of time before Dysart finds himself smitten. This is complicated further by such matters as his marriage to Arabella slowly crumbling at the seams, Sybil’s torrid affair with his old school chum Albert Penniman which turns out to be nothing more than a blatant social climb, and his aunt Edith Bradford, a suffragist and stalwart women’s rights activist who can tell William more about his mother with a glance than anyone else is willing to spill with oceans of explanation.

The highways and byways of this novel are copious, and in fact evoke the greatest storytelling skills of such masters as Edith Wharton. But the surprise ending even emerges as reminiscent of O. Henry in his prime, so difficult is it to see where the last chapter will finally lead until we the readers are helplessly immersed. Suffice to say, one breathes a sigh of inestimable relief to know that the dark cloud of Dysart’s unhappy existence contains some semblance of a silver lining, no matter how unexpected.

In a perfect world, writers like Gregory Murphy would be coming into their own on a daily basis with a long line of timeless works that would be cherished by millions, and take their rightful place in literary history. Alas, such happenstances are few and very far between in the current day and age. Therefore, it couldn’t be more highly recommended to purchase a copy of Incognito. A read this sumptuous only comes around once in an extremely long while.

The world of undiscovered literature could rather be likened to the world of Off-Off-Broadway theatre; nine times out of ten the product may provide a few redeeming qualities, but for the most part remains unmemorable except to those persons directly involved. But it is that tenth glorious time that everything brilliantly falls into place, and has the potential to soar to the heavens. So it goes with Sarah Milbourn’s Mother: An Experiment in Fiction, by author/playwright and activist Mary Alice Mark. Not only is this an important work for the modern age, but a portion of the sales will benefit one of Ms. Mark’s many worthy causes, the MHA’s Living Room program in Poughkeepsie, New York, helping to enhance the lives of the homeless and similarly afflicted.

The title character is actually more of a co-star in Mark’s wondrously-constructed narrative; rather, our main character and protagonist comes in the form of eleven-year-old May. Unusually wise far beyond her years, and borne of a home based completely on a lethal mix of neglect and dysfunction, she emerges to the reader as nothing less than a miracle child; her views on everything from God and religion, to pacifism and the class system, are the absolute embodiment of American intellectual culture in the very early 1960s, sloughing off the sweetness-light-and-perfection of the Eisenhower era while teetering precariously on the brink of an imminent loss of abject innocence. Over the course of thirteen chapters, in which May matures from eleven to fourteen, we watch this girl, always endeavoring to educate and enlighten herself through her cherished library books, collecting bottles daily to pay for her bus fare to and from school, and firmly standing her ground against bullies young and old, in both verbal and physical scrapes, as well as unnecessarily weathering her unconscionable exposure to the darkest sides of life at her tender age. This is a kid who has literally seen it all in her Miami neighborhood, and pulls no punches in spelling it out for those too ignorant to see the reality of any and all situations, at the same time soaking up facts she might have missed along the way. In her creation of May, Ms. Mark may well have unleashed one of modern fiction’s newest potential legendary heroines.

Why then, you may be asking, is the novel entitled Sarah Milbourn’s Mother? Well, after a contretemps involving May’s defense of a little boy beaten and bloodied at a playground water fountain, in which she stands up to the bully at hand (the first such happenstance among many throughout this one-hundred-eighty page opus), she happens to befriend Dianne Milbourn and develop a tremendous kinship with Dianne’s younger sister Sarah, who happens to be deaf since birth but for some reason understands May completely. In the process, May becomes a regular visitor to the Milbourn household and develops an even deeper friendship and camaraderie with Sarah Milbourn’s Mother, whose proper name we never learn. A self -professed “simple country woman” making a living by taking in ironing and supporting four kids, and burning with love and loneliness for the husband who only comes around every so often, Sarah Milbourn’s Mother proves herself a tower of inherent strength nearly every time she opens her mouth, to let forth yet another pearl of wisdom that is so blatantly obvious but so easy not to spot in the everyday whirlwind of existence. In time, she becomes May’s mother, big sister, best friend and unquestionable kindred spirit, and the reader can only delight in watching how that part of the story unfolds.

In addition, Ms. Mark never for a moment wavers in the area of character development where the tale’s other major players are concerned. These include Reverend Kind (who is anything but) and his family, the marvelous sixth-grade teacher Mrs. Connor, a variety of swindlers, teenage prostitutes of both genders as well as their pimp and potential johns, and snooty classmate Eleanor among many others. In point of fact, Ms. Mark has created a world that leaps off the page in a way that is equally comparable with such works as Hubert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, because the imagery is drawn with a similarly masterful stroke of the pen. Granted, the occasional typo abounds and can be slightly jarring once one is so thoroughly drawn into the action, but that’s an obstacle one must simply overlook.

If one had to possibly define the moral of the story, it might be boiled down to two. The first, with no pun intended, is to never judge a book by its cover. The other, and much more clear, is that God is love, love is everywhere and, therefore, God is everywhere. And so, in a just world, both Mary Alice Mark and the characters of May and Sarah Milbourn’s Mother would be making literary history. Until that time, one can do no better than to purchase a copy.

Every once in a while I have a reason to bring this story out of mothballs, so I figured I’d just put it on the blog for posterity in case those who haven’t seen it want to take a look. I don’t write a lot of fiction, as we all know, mostly because I don’t really have the kind of imagination it takes to be a full-time novelist. But this is a short story I wrote back in ’05 that I think is pretty good, and it took second prize in a literary competition a few years ago. It’s loosely based on someone I knew very briefly for a time, but most of it was my own invention. Enjoy.

LETTY

Her name was Letty. Not short for Letitia. Not short for anything, actually. When she was born, her parents decided to name her Letty. And she was perfect. Not just in the eyes of her family, but she simply was. She was blonde and blue-eyed, the most beautiful child on the entire block in Brooklyn. Her parents and grandparents had a lot of money, and in those days of the very late 1940s, all she knew was a life filled with the best toys on the block. The best bike for miles around. And the best clothes. Oh, how she loved her clothes. Her other inherent gift was her smile, which was probably more perfect than she was. It was a smile that could launch thousands of ships.

When she was nine, she and her folks and baby brother moved to Long Island. On their very first day moved in as a family, a Saturday afternoon, Letty confidently put on her pretty pink dress in her equally-pretty pink bedroom, and walked out to the front lawn to scope out the neighborhood for potential friends. The very first person to happen by was Sharon. On a bike that was nicer than Letty’s. Sharon was the most beautiful child Letty had ever seen. Her raven hair hung down in ringlets past her shoulders, and her sea-green eyes seemed to sparkle in the suburban April sunlight. “Hi!” Sharon called out, waving. “I heard there was new girl my age moving in! I’m Sharon! Wanna grab your bike and ride down to the candy store with me? We could get a Dixie cup.”

“Ummm…sure,” Letty replied. “I’m Letty. Let me just go in and ask my mom. Just give me a minute, ‘cause she’s putting our kitchen together.” Sharon obliged with a smile and an enthusiastic nod.

Letty strolled slowly back into the house, gave a quick look back at Sharon with her always-dazzling smile, then walked into the kitchen where her mother was trying to arrange the silverware drawer with a frustrated look, as baby brother Barry sat back in a highchair and gurgling. “Mommy?” she asked. “Can I get a new bike? One of those new ones, from Schwinn?”

Her mother gave her a strange look. “A new bike? Letty, your birthday isn’t for two months yet. And what’s wrong with your bike?”

“I know,” Letty replied, “but I was outside with some of the new kids just now and my bike is just so dingy,” she said. “It doesn’t measure up and it won’t look nice. Couldn’t I please get a new one?” Just then Barry started to cry, and as her mother went to pick up the infant to be rocked, she hastily said, “Well, I suppose. We’ll ask your father when he comes home from the store.”

“Oh, thank you, Mommy,” Letty replied. “I love you. And can I walk down to the candy store and get a Dixie cup? This nice girl outside just asked me.”

“Of COURSE!” her mother said. “Don’t keep the girl waiting! Take fifteen cents out of my pocketbook. And don’t spoil your dinner.”

“Thank you, Mommy,” she said again and flashed her killer smile. She helped herself to a dime and a nickel from her mother’s purse and walked out to where Sharon was still waiting.

“Gonna get your bike?” Sharon asked, her face lighting up with an eager grin.

Letty sighed sadly and shook her head. “The thing is, it hasn’t been delivered yet,” she replied. “My grandparents just bought me a new one as an early birthday present, but they’re waiting for it to come from FAO Schwarz. In the city, and all. So would it be OK if we walk down there instead?”

“Sure!” Sharon said, still beaming. “Let me just drop my bike off back home, up the block. I’ll be back in two minutes and we’ll walk down there. I’ll show you the neighborhood. We’ll meet all the other kids on the way.”

“Thanks! You’re a real pal!” Letty told her, smiling again as only she could.

Within minutes the two girls were at the candy store enjoying their ice cream, and Letty knew she would fit right in here. And that having this girl as a friend could only give her leverage. It was within two weeks that she and Sharon would be racing their bikes up and down the sidewalks after school, with Letty as proud as she could be that her parents had given her a top of the line model.

She became friends with many other boys and girls in the neighborhood over the years. However, Letty’s quest for perfection became a lifelong vocation as she and Sharon became better and better, and ultimately best, friends. It was never anything she had to work for previously in the eyes of anyone besides herself, but deep inside she couldn’t contain her jealousy over the fact that Sharon always seemed to get it right without any effort. And Letty always seemed to need to top her and make it look as though she had just sailed through the process. When Sharon had an A average in school, Letty’s had to be A-plus. She helped Sharon with her project for the Junior High Science Fair every night, making sure it wasn’t quite as good as her own, which took first prize. When Sharon received a white MG for her seventeenth birthday, Letty asked for and got a pink Corvette, with “LETTY” spelled out on the plates.

Then came high school graduation in 1965 and teary goodbyes between the two young women, with promises to be best friends forever and always stay in touch. Sharon would be flying off to California to attend UC-Berkeley, and Letty opted to remain at home and go to nearby Hofstra. She accompanied Sharon and her parents to the airport for a final goodbye, and flashed her effervescent smile the whole time as she watched Sharon get on the plane. Deep inside, she felt like it was the first time in eight years she’d been able to breathe.

For the next four years, she immersed herself in college life and continued her quest for perfection, always spurred on by the notion of how much more Sharon might be achieving out West. But their sporadic conversations by phone always sounded as though she didn’t have much to worry about. Sharon seemed to have gotten very interested in the free-love movement that was pervading Northern California, continuing to commit to classes but also experimenting with marijuana and sexual liberation. Not that it stopped her from graduating Cum Laude with her Political Science degree, but Letty always figured that her own ability to walk the straight and narrow is what got her that Magna Cum Laude degree in Speech Pathology. Plus all those departmental honors.

Though Letty had dated several boys in college, she wasn’t as serious about anyone as she was about her studies, and she took to her first job with aplomb, working in a leading speech pathology lab in Nassau County. She loved the fact that she was placed in a mid-level management position right off the bat, as opposed to Sharon, who was interning for some minor California state senator and would have to really start from the ground up. And she was popular as always, making friends with the other few women who worked there, taking lunch with them and going out on Friday nights to movies or the occasional nightclub.

Eight months into her work, one of her work friends, Marie, stopped by her desk on a Tuesday. Marie had just gotten engaged to a young gentleman named Frank, who was about to start his own business. “I want to ask you something,” she said.

“Sure,” Letty answered.

“How would you like to go on a double date on Friday night, with me and Frank and his old roommate from senior year?” she asked. “I’ve met him a few times and I think you guys would be great together. If nothing else, you’d look terrific as a couple.”

“Really?” Letty replied. “Tell me more.”

Marie smiled. “Well, his name is Ron. Nice, nice man, and very well-brought-up. Parents are from Spain, but he was brought up in Florida and moved here to go to Columbia, which is how he met Frank. Tall, dark and handsome. He just got a Master’s in Business Administration, and Frank thinks he’s a real go-getter.”

Letty thought for a minute. “Hmmm,” she finally said, and smiled her customary smile. “He DOES sound nice. Can I think about it and let you know tomorrow?”

“Sure you can,” Marie smiled back. “But I think you’ll say yes.”

“Well, I’ll let you know. Thanks, Marie.”

That night after dinner, she placed a call to California and reached Sharon at her office. After making some polite small talk with Sharon about their jobs and their parents, Letty asked if she had any romantic prospects. “No, not really,” Sharon replied. “I mean I work such long hours, so there’s really not much time for dating. How about you?”

“Oh,” Letty said evasively, “you know how it goes. One of the women at work wants to set me up with her fiancee’s friend, but I don’t know. I work a lot of hours, too. Not nearly as many as you, you poor thing, but plenty. He does sound nice, though.”

“Well, one date couldn’t hurt, you know,” Sharon answered. “I think you should. Come on; have I ever steered you wrong?”

Letty smiled. “No, Sharon. You have never, ever steered me wrong. OK, I’ll do it if you say so.”

“Good. Let me know. I’d better run; there’s a big meeting here in a few minutes.” The two said their goodbyes and hung up, and Letty knew what her answer to Marie would be.

On Friday night, the four went to a French restaurant in the city, and Ron was everything Marie had promised and more. He was gorgeous, as she knew he would be; nearly six-foot-four and utterly strapping, but at the same time with a grace and chivalrous quality to which she was unaccustomed. For the next several weeks, as she and Ron saw more and more of each other, she knew she was falling in love, and she had the sense that he was feeling likewise. And best of all, she knew she was partaking in a side of life that was leaving Sharon way in the dust.

She would never forget the night he proposed, four months after their meeting. He took her to an elegant Spanish restaurant on Long Island, where he impressed her by ordering the entire meal in the native language of his parents, and the food was impeccable. Most of the time was spent talking about a business he was planning to open, which would contract paper products to businesses, and as he illustrated his plans for the future, Letty was dazzled. After dinner had been cleared away, the waiter brought two cups of coffee and two dishes of flan, which Ron urged her to taste. She dipped her spoon into the creamy custard and her eyes widened as she bit down on something hard; spitting it into her napkin, she discovered the most perfect three-carat diamond engagement ring. It was all Letty could do not to let out a squeal of delight as Ron got down on one knee and officially asked her to share the rest of his life, to which she joyfully agreed. Sharing a big kiss, the entire restaurant broke out into applause and shouts of congratulations in Spanish.

The next six months were a whirlwind of plans. Letty would continue to work at the lab until a few days before the wedding, during which time Ron was extremely busy organizing the paper business. Her mother and grandmother, naturally, had their own hands full making sure that the day would be absolute perfection. Though they’d settled on a local country club for the reception, it would be a mix of Long Island luxury interlaced with Spanish wedding traditions. The one hitch was that Sharon wouldn’t be able to attend; she was being called to testify for the prosecution in an indictment hearing regarding local politics, and was forbidden to leave the state of California. Still, Letty took the fact that she was getting married, when Sharon didn’t even have a boyfriend, to be fitting consolation. And Marie was a fine choice for maid of honor.

A virgin when she married Ron, she had absolutely no concept of how fierce their passion would be on their honeymoon, or that she would find herself wanting to repeat the experience as often as possible. They spent two of the most romantic weeks in Mexico she could ever have hoped for, and their lives became wedded bliss when they returned home to the apartment they’d decided to rent in Little Neck. Ron went off to his small office in Jericho daily, and Letty soon discovered how much she loved being a housewife. She was thrilled to decorate the apartment and make a perfect home for them, and kept as socially busy as she could by occasionally meeting a girl-friend for lunch. She rarely cooked, because she just didn’t like to, and Ron was thrilled to spend the majority of their dinnertime in restaurants. But when she did cook he praised her dishes to the skies, and when she threw dinner parties for his business associates or potential clients, no detail was ever out of place.

Five weeks after the wedding, thrilled to learn that she was pregnant, she immediately called Sharon after first calling Ron at the office, then notifying her parents and brother of the blessed event. Needless to say, Ron was dancing with joy and told her he was coming home immediately, and her family was utterly thrilled. Sharon picked up the phone on the first ring, and as soon as Letty identified herself, she got very excited. “I was just gonna pick up the phone and call you,” she said. “I have big news.”

“So do I,” Letty smiled, “but you go first.”

“I’m getting married.”

“No!!” Letty shouted. “You are? That’s so great! Who? When?” (I’ve already done that, she thought to herself).

“Well, let me tell you what happened,” she said. “You remember that court case I was involved with? There was this television news reporter who was at the trial every day. Gorgeous redheaded man, and so nice. He noticed that I was single, so when I was all through with my testimony, he approached me one day outside the courthouse and invited me to dinner. So we went out a few times and we really hit it off. Then a couple of weeks ago, I decided to go back to his apartment with him. My mother would die if she knew that, but I figure what the hell, it’s 1971, right? She doesn’t know about my college escapades, either. Anyway, it happened. Kid on the way.”

Letty nearly dropped the phone receiver. “You’re getting married AND you’re pregnant?” she said. “Oh, my God. Well, what are you…how are you…I mean, how’s this all gonna happen at once?”

“Oh, we’re just going to get married by a city judge in a few days. My boss has all kinds of connections, and we just want to get it over with. Bobby makes great money at the TV studio, and I’ll just take a short maternity leave.” She sighed. “He loves me, Letty. He really, really loves me and wants to take care of me. Take care of us.”

“That’s so great!” Letty said, secretly delighted by the fact that Sharon wouldn’t be having a big wedding. “That is just so, so great. I’m so happy for you and I can’t wait for us to meet him.”

“Yes,” Sharon said, “we HAVE to do that as soon as we can. Maybe after I have the baby we’ll fly out for a visit. It’s been way too long since you and I have seen each other. Now, what was your news?”

Letty shifted uncomfortably. “Oh,” she began, “it’s nothing. I mean it seems so silly now, what with your news.”

“Now, come on,” Sharon pressed. “What’s up?”

“Well…” Letty smiled, “you won’t believe this, but I’m pregnant.”

“NO!!!!” Sharon shouted into the phone. “This is so GREAT!! Oh, my God, we’re both gonna be MOMMIES!! At the same TIME!!”

“Yeah,” Letty said, smiling her big smile but feeling utterly deflated. “Isn’t that great? Listen, I’d better run. Ron got so excited when I gave him the news and he’s on his way home.”

“OK,” Sharon replied. “Listen, keep me posted. I want to know everything. Talk to you soon.”

“You bet,” Letty answered through her smile. “Bye, Sharon!”

They hung up and Letty cried for the next fifteen minutes, putting her brave face back on as soon as Ron walked in the door.

True to form, she had a perfect pregnancy, even though she hated every minute of it. No morning sickness, no neuralgia, nary even a hemorrhoid. And she was entranced every time Sharon would call with stories of how sick she felt all the time, or how she had gone to a fancy political luncheon and droplets of milk ruined her best silk blouse. They had the babies within a day of each other, Letty going through a very easy labor and delivering her son Glenn after a mere two hours, and Sharon being forced through twenty-three hours of grueling agony before her daughter Adrienne entered the world. Letty didn’t know whether to be happier about the children’s genders or that Sharon had gone through so much.

Although they exchanged photographs of the kids through the mail, they only spoke to each other by phone every few years after that for nearly the next two decades, and usually only when one had important news for the other. Letty delighted in being able to call Sharon and tell her that they were moving out of the apartment in Little Neck and into a big beautiful house in Dix Hills with a pool, or that Ron’s paper business had just gotten a worldwide contract with Hilton, or that Glenn had gotten accepted to Harvard and was class valedictorian. Sharon was always so thrilled to hear from her. And equally thrilled to be able to call and tell her that they were moving to Santa Monica because Bobby had become the 6 PM anchor at a Los Angeles station, or that she had just finished her first book about the political process and had signed a contract for five more, or that Adrienne would be attending Stanford after competing with the Olympic gymnastics team. And through it all, Letty wore her most dazzling smile and seethed with private rage.

Then one Thursday in April, Letty’s phone rang, and it was Sharon. “Guess what?” she said. “I’m in New York.”

“Really?” Letty asked. “How come?”

“My tour for the third book,” Sharon replied. “I would have called you but it all happened so fast. They told me about it two days ago and flew me out yesterday, and the city was the first stop. You wouldn’t believe this room they’ve got me in at the Ritz-Carlton; it’s to die for.”

“That’s great,” Letty said, smiling.

“So I was thinking,” Sharon continued, “that since Bobby can’t get here until the weekend and I have some time in between interviews, maybe you and I could have lunch tomorrow. Would that work out for you?”

Letty hesitated. The last thing she wanted was to see Sharon. She just didn’t think she could bear the thought of having to keep her smile glued on while Sharon prattled on about how wonderful her life was. But as usual, her need for perfection wouldn’t let her say no.

“Sure,” she said, still smiling. “I haven’t been to the city in forever. Should I meet you at the hotel?”

“Well, my publisher recommended an Italian restaurant a few doors down, called Sandomenico,” Sharon said. “It’s supposed to be a celebrity hangout, and really highly recommended. Hey, they’re footing the bill, so I guess we should give it a try. Want to meet there at about one? I’ll call them and set it up.”

“You bet,” Letty replied, smiling. “Yummy. And I’ll have so much fun deciding what to wear. See you then, pal.”

Sharon giggled. “That’s so funny. I don’t think you’ve called me pal for forty years.”

Letty forced a chuckle. “Isn’t that something? Well, bye.” And hung up.

The whole idea of this was churning her stomach as she drove westward on the Long Island Expressway towards the city, but she figured she could always just have a salad. If nothing else, she knew she looked like a million bucks in her teal velvet suit. She walked through the doors of the opulent restaurant at a practiced moment, as she’d always done, exactly three minutes after the appointed time. After checking her coat, she recognized Sharon instantly. The black hair was the same (although probably tinted by now, she thought), and those damnable green eyes still lit up the entire room from wherever they were located. But she made it a point to squint about the assembled patrons as though she was seeking her out, until Sharon waved her over. With her huge trademark smile, the smile that had gotten her through nearly fifty years, she swept through the dining room, wordlessly giving her old friend a seemingly-warm albeit stiff hug, and then a kiss on both cheeks. And with the same fixed smile, she descended upon the seat.

Sharon grinned. “They’re sending over a bottle of Cristal,” she said. “I know you don’t want to drink much, because you’ve got to drive back, but I thought it would be nice to have a long old-fashioned gab session. We can always go up to the room and you can lie down if you need to.”

“No, I’ll be fine,” Letty replied. They stared at each other across the table for nearly a minute, smiling, until Sharon felt the tension between them and broke the silence. “So,” she began, “how’s everything?” The waiter came over with the champagne and started pouring.

“Oh, things are wonderful,” she said, accepting a glass of Cristal from the waiter. “Ron’s going to sell the company next year to a major conglomerate. I can’t even begin to imagine the money we’ll get.”

“That’s great, Letty!” Sharon said, taking her own glass. “We’ll wait on seeing the menus,” she told the waiter. “Right now we’re just catching up.” He acknowledged that and left.

Sharon clinked her glass with Letty’s and they each took a sip. “So he’s retiring, then?”

“I honestly couldn’t tell you,” Letty replied. “We’ve talked about it, and we’re probably going to take a year-long cruise around the world once the sale is final, but I can’t imagine he’ll remain completely inactive. You know how he is.”

“Yeah, you’ve told me,” Sharon said. “And how’s Glenn?”

“Glenn is great!” she replied emphatically. “He was in Tokyo working with the financial market all last year, but now he’s settled in at Goldman Sachs and they seem to love him there. His Christmas bonus in December was a hundred sixty thousand.”

“Isn’t that wonderful?” Sharon said.

“It’s wonderful,” Letty echoed, smiling.

They stared at each other for another minute, the tension once again palpable. “Uh, well…” Sharon said, “things are good with me, too. Busy, you know. This tour is gonna be grueling. They’ve got me doing sixty cities in four months. It’s just insane. I’m only glad Bobby can fly out tonight after the broadcast. You know, next week he starts doing the eleven o’clock news, not just the six o’clock. God, what would we do without our husbands?”

“Sure,” Letty said, still staring and smiling. Another minute went by.

“Adrienne’s doing well, too,” she started, beginning to feel unsure about Letty’s attitude. “You know, she majored in Communications at Stanford with a concentration in broadcasting, and they’ve had her doing some sportscasting on the morning news. Bobby and I are so proud of her. I still don’t know how either of us got through those Olympics. Every time she got up on that balance beam I couldn’t bear to look. The other day when I was looking at her bronze medal in her old room, it just brought it all back.”

“Sure,” Letty said again, still eying her and smiling.

Sharon picked up the bottle and topped her glass. “Letty,” she asked, “is everything OK? I was hoping we could have a nice talk, and you’re sitting there staring at me and smiling like a Stepford Wife. Is something wrong?”

“Everything’s fine,” Letty answered, still smiling and pouring more champagne into her own glass and taking a big sip. She chuckled suddenly. “Stepford Wife? That’s funny. Like, because I became a housewife and you didn’t, you’re somehow better than me?”

The question caught Sharon off guard and she emitted a little choking noise. “What?” she asked, truly puzzled. “Better than you? Letty, what on earth are you talking about?”

“You know what I’m talking about,” Letty said, forty-one years of jealousy suddenly rising inexplicably to the surface. “You’ve lorded it over me since Day One. That very first day, when you rode your bike to my house. ‘Oh, look at my pretty black hair and my pretty green eyes. Oh, look at my pretty bike. My life is more perfect than anybody’s.’ Well, guess what, Sharon. I’m sick of it and I’m sick of you.”

Sharon stared at her as though she had just descended from a spaceship. “You…I…what??? I LORD things over you? What are you SAYING?”

“I’m just saying I’ve had it,” Letty replied. “I’m tired of the competition and I’m tired of the fact that I can’t win it. I’m not happy.”

Sharon slugged her champagne in a fluid movement and stared at her childhood friend, the one she had always considered a sister until this very moment in time. “Let’s put a few things in perspective, lady,” she said evenly. “You were, and still are, the most beautiful, blonde, blue-eyed princess any of us had ever seen. You had it all and you still have it all. My house wasn’t nearly as nice as yours, my clothes weren’t as nice, my family wasn’t as nice. As for my bike, which apparently you envied, that was ALL that I had. You always got better grades, you took that prize at the science fair, you had that gorgeous Corvette that all us girls were drooling over. You graduated Magna from Hofstra and got a major job right out of school. You married that beautiful man and had the wedding of the century. And then gave birth to a baby boy, of course, who turned out to be as perfect as you. And now you’re telling me that all this time you were jealous of ME?” Sharon topped her drink again and took a sip. “Boy, oh boy, Letty. We all knew you’d grow up to be anything you wanted, but I never imagined that what you wanted was to be really bitter.”

“I think this luncheon is concluded,” Letty said. Smiling again.

“Yes, I think it is, too,” Sharon replied. “Don’t call me.”

Letty rose and retrieved her coat, then swept grandly back to the garage where she’d parked her car. Her head was held high. As far as she was concerned, she’d finally put Sharon in her place, and it felt fantastic. She was positively jubilant as she drove home to Dix Hills.

When she got there, Ron was already home, watching a basketball game. He’d been working reduced hours lately in anticipation of the sale. She hung up her coat and he gave her a big hug. “So how was your lunch?” he asked, as he resettled himself on the couch.

“Oh, it was great,” she replied, seating herself next to him and flashing her smile. “Just great. Exactly what I wanted.”

“Perfect,” he said. And continued to watch the game.

“Yes,” she said, after a minute. “Perfect. And as long as it’s perfect, that’s all that matters.”

THE END

Since the late 1970s, Geri Jewell has established herself as both legendary and miraculous. It’s not just because of a life spent afflicted with cerebral palsy and overcoming its obstacles, or the fact that she managed to become the first breakout star on network television with an obvious disability (as Blair’s cousin Geri Warner on The Facts of Life for four seasons), but because her life has been a roller coaster as rocky as any of the involuntary physical movements that are a part of her daily existence. And her recently-published autobiography, I’m Walking As Straight As I Can: Transcending Disability in Hollywood and Beyond (written with Ted Nichelson), takes the reader on a roller coaster of our own. Which, though often wracked with sorrowful tales and stories of abject disappointment, also transforms us into an indefatigable squad of cheerleaders as we witness her triumphs and stupendous growth, from a long-suffering tomboy-child into a woman in complete control of her past, her present, her future, and her sexuality above all else.

Jewell’s story begins in the mid-1950s in a sleepy suburb of Buffalo, New York, where her mother was injured in a car accident during mid-stage pregnancy, and which led to the child’s early delivery and subsequent three-month incubation period before her CP diagnosis. After the family’s relocation to Southern California (including older brothers Fred and David, prior to the birth of baby sister Gloria) to seek special educational and medical resources for the girl, Jewell never ceases to entertain with such tales of her youth as her unexplained aptitude for skateboarding, getting into trouble in school for an attempt to shampoo the hair of another student (it defies description here and would give it away to say anything more), or her family’s battles with evil next-door neighbor Mrs. Bismuth. And her anecdotes of the red tape involved with trying to be a student with disabilities in both high school and junior college are alternately riotous and regretful. But by the time her career officially kicks off in the late 1970s, both as a standup comedian at the very start of the comedy boom and in her first television appearance in a memorable spot on the PBS series The Righteous Apples, we who are reading this impossible-to-put-down memoir are not merely riveted, but positively jubilant and thrilled for her success, and even more so when The Facts of Life places her firmly and forever on the international cultural landscape.

Unfortunately, and this is by no means a reflection on Jewell’s marvelous abilities as a raconteuse, the story is at times so fraught with sadness and bad choices on the lady’s part through a mix of professional and personal innocence and insecurity, as well as sexual ambivalence, that the reader may actually find themselves internally screaming at the pages, “Geri, no!! No!! Oh, honey, WHY did you do THAT??” These include her first manager and his butchery of her finances, her friendship with two women who managed to completely pull the wool over her eyes in different ways, and her extremely stormy marriage to Richard Pimentel, a man so volatile as to make the Marquis de Sade look like Little Boy Blue. We’re also taken through the agony of her eventual addiction to both the sleep-aid Restoril and the painkiller Soma, and her harrowing rehabilitation period. And of course, the unconscionable way she was dismissed from The Facts of Life hangs over the entire story like an ominous black cloud, waiting to explode with soaking rain. Plus, the accounts of the passing of her mother is truly heartbreaking, followed by the death of her father some years later after remarrying and distancing himself from his children, not to mention the spectre of the infamous “orgasm joke” that got her into such hot water with mainstream America. However, whenever Jewell manages to score a success within the telling of her life, and especially those involving her interactions with such celebrities as Carol Burnett, Liza Minnelli, Patty Duke, David Cassidy, Robert Goulet, Flip Wilson and Steve Allen, or such colleagues from the comedy world as Robert Schimmel and Bob Nelson, it becomes a moment brimming with satisfaction to see her live in a way that most people, aspiring entertainers or otherwise and with or without disabilities, can only dream of.  Equally joyous are the chance to learn about her close and refreshing friendship with Facts of Life co-star Lisa Whelchel and fellow disabled comedian Kathy Buckley, among many others. And by the time she stumbles onto a chance meeting at a pharmacy with television powerhouse David Milch and he offers her the chance to make a comeback, on HBO’s hit Western series Deadwood in the character of Jewel, one literally wants to applaud.

It should also be noted, if it wasn’t already pointedly clear, that another lifelong struggle for Jewell, and much more of a secret, has been with defining herself as a gay woman or even bisexual. This is complicated not only by a sexual molestation at the hands of a male while younger, or a much more severe assault by a perfectly odious actor named Jack King when she was a young standup comedian, but by both her guilt and the possibility of being even more different than previously thought. An invitation to a dinner party at the home of Rita Mae Brown nearly gives her a much-needed breakthrough towards coming out of the closet, but it isn’t until nearly the very end of the story that Jewell is finally granted the serenity to accept something ELSE that she cannot change. And her palpable relief at that fact absolutely bursts off the page.

Ergo, I’m Walking As Straight As I Can is one of those rare nonfiction reads that can evoke every emotion under the sun from the first page to the last. It exists to be savored. And then shared. And then savored again. By all means, get thee to an online bookseller and order a copy as soon as possible.