Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Chapter 23: An Uptown Soiree

Chapter 23
An Uptown Soiree



As the discoloration and swelling disappeared from around Tennessee’s eyes, his new appearance emerged, and he had to face the fact that a surgeon could not restore sexual attractiveness to a seventy-year-old man in the same way a few nips had freshened Texas Kate. He did not speak of this, but I could see it in his step and hear it in his sudden outbursts about the homophobic surgeon who had given him “no anesthesia” and in his accusation that Kate had fed us only venison sausage at her icy ranch.
He did look rested. The bags were gone from under his eyes, but he looked no younger than before. Regardless, his desire to find the physical poetry of the androgynous, the object of his tactile urge, remained. In the manner of his years-long habit, he continued the quest—and that gave me something to do too. 


“Ever seen Milwaukee?” Danny asked me.
            The two of us were eating lunch on the front porch of Claire, a restaurant on Duval St. As Danny leaned over to take a bite of his hamburger, his blonde hair swept within an inch of the juices that had pooled on his plate. I picked at my Thai beef salad.
            “My girlfriend’s in Milwaukee.”
            Danny was about twenty-two and too thin for his black T-shirt. He had seemed listless since we left the house, but perked up when lunch was served.
            “I gotta go back and see her,” he said, and then stuffed another bite into his mouth.
I eyed the homemade cross tattoos on his knuckles, wondering why he had two.
“Really miss her,” he said.
            Tennessee had picked up Danny the night before—or Gary had picked him up for Tennessee. I had been out on my own. This was not the first time Tennessee asked me to take one of these boys out for a meal when the urge to write interrupted other activities. Writing trumped all other things. By the time we returned from a leisurely meal, Tennessee’s writing urge would have been spent.
Soon after I began working for him, Tennessee said he thought I was too “aristocratic” to be expected to “procure” for him. I thought that was both flattering and insulting, although I was glad to hear it. In truth, I was too shy and stubbornly naïve about such things. My own strategy for meeting someone was simply to hang out and try to look approachable. I never went up and introduced myself—that did not seem simple to me at all. I would have had no idea how to go about doing it for someone else, especially with money involved. The fear of the unknown and the vestiges of my upbringing froze me in place at the thought.
            “It’s my mother,” he said. “I send her money.” He glanced at me looking for a reaction, but I said nothing. “Cancer,” he said. “She’s got cancer.” He picked up the remains of his hamburger. “I heard you could make some money in Key West.”
All these young men that I had entertained, there had been four or five, had the same story: from the Midwest, girlfriend back home, and some close relative with a health emergency requiring lots of cash. I wondered how much, if any of it, was true.
“Well, is it true?” I asked. “Do you make good money?”
            “He’s generous—Tennessee. He’s decent,” Danny said. “A writer . . . my mom would like that.” He wiped his mouth and looked out beyond the street. “I can tell her I met a writer in Key West.”
            I wondered what story Danny would tell his mother about the Key West writer. Not all these boys knew that Tennessee was a writer. They were just doing their job, paying scant attention to non-essential details. Little else mattered to them as long as they were paid. Once, I ran into one of them at Delmonico’s a day after taking him to lunch. He said he appreciated what a gentleman I had been, and looking up, offered his services for free. I hated to refuse what was probably the most giving gesture that he knew, but I was not interested.
I wondered where these boys would be in five years.             


With Danny in the house that morning, there had been no reading of “The Donsinger Women and Their Handyman Jack.” Since the day in Houston when Tennessee first read its beginnings, he had read his revisions to me daily—and to anyone else handy at the time: Skye, Gary, or Helen, on the now-rare event that she stopped by. Each day’s revision reflected Tennessee’s opinion-of-the-moment of me. Tall handyman Jack had gone from heroic to cowardly and back again. Then, most recently, he had become a traitor and a slave to his own lusts. He had all but abandoned the imprisoned creature, causing the balance of power to tip in favor of the Donsinger Women. Giving in fully to his sexual addictions, Jack was spending more and more time behind the dumpster at a nearby Chinese restaurant. There, Asian waiters brought him sweet and sour pork—leftovers from the plates of diners, in return for an ever more exotic variety of sexual favors.
            Tennessee read these revisions with relish. He knew I preferred robust men, not smooth, young blades with two hairs flanking each nipple, and he knew I hated sweet-and-sour anything. I was glad I had not bragged around town that he was writing a story about me. Actually, there was no need to. As Jack’s fortunes worsened, Gary and Skye had begun blabbing about it to everyone we knew.
The message was clear. Tennessee did not like my going out nights or meeting other men. However, I was not his lover and had taken no vow of celibacy. Early on, to preserve my sanity, I had decided to ignore these expectations, except when he had a practical need for me in the evening.
Over time, I had learned to react to his mood swings not by kowtowing to them, but by calmly speaking to what I considered his center. Others played step-n-fetch-it at his every outburst, but I remained stubbornly unruffled, or at least tried to give that impression. His fits did unnerve me, but I knew that beneath the storm, a part of him was undisturbed, and I was intent on addressing it. Still, his mood could swing unexpectedly in any direction. Angry or pleased, paranoid or gullible, focused or lost in some labyrinth within his mind—and his moods changed with and without apparent reason.
One evening while searching for a bottle of Frascati in New York, we found a narrow liquor store wedged into the middle of a block. Entering, I felt the weight of the shelves on either side. Stacked to the peeling tin ceiling, the bottles looked as if they would fall at a sneeze. A clerk with a mustache and salt-and-pepper afro sat on a bar stool at the end the counter. Seeing him, Tennessee, still hunched from the cold, spoke, practically mumbling.
“He didn’t do it,” he said. His hands were in his pockets as he looked at the man. “I know he didn’t. He couldn’t . . .” I glanced at the clerk who sat unmoved, watching. Tennessee, fighting tears, continued addressing him. “He would never kill those children. He was framed.”
He had to be referring to Wayne Williams, the young black man in Atlanta accused of a series of child murders. The ongoing disappearance and murder of black children in Atlanta had long gone unsolved. There were rumors the Klan was behind the attacks, and with racial tension mounting, police had been under mounting pressure to find the killer. On scant evidence, they arrested Wayne Williams. The police painted him as a homosexual pedophile and murderer, but when they brought him to trial, they charged him only with the murder of two adults—none of the children. The trial was in progress in Atlanta.
Getting no response from the clerk, Tennessee began to move slowly, bottle-by-bottle, down the aisle.
I squeezed past him and found the Frascati—a miracle to find it stocked in such a small store. Wine in hand, I just wanted to get out of there. I reminded myself that New Yorkers had seen everything. I hoped this was true.
“They won’t get away with this,” Tennessee muttered to himself.
I slipped back past him and placed the bottle on the counter.
Still near tears, Tennessee looked at the clerk as he approached him. “The blacks think I’m one of them you know.”
I checked to be sure the way out was clear.
“They write me all the time. I love the blacks.”
There was no point waiting for him to pay. I pulled a twenty from my wallet. The clerk rang up the sale and handed me change.
“Tom, let’s go,” I said. “We’re late.”
Before we walked out the door, Tennessee turned and called back. “He didn’t do it. I know it. I know it . . .” The bell on the door jingled as I pulled him through to the cold night air.
Exchanges like this were rare. More frequently, he railed against New York arbiters of culture. He claimed they had all turned against him years ago—unspecified de la Rentas, but especially the Gelbs. Tennessee was convinced that to establish Eugene O’Neill as America’s pre-eminent playwright, Arthur and Barbara Gelb were using the full power of their newpaper, the New York Times to destroy his reputation.
He imagined plots by his lawyers, accountants, and the agents at ICM. Either they were stealing from him, or they were suppressing his work until after his death to reap huge profits as soon as his corpse was disposed of and his life-story prettied up.
I listened to his complaints. Many had to be delusions. I wondered how soon he would misread my words and turn on me too. Hoping to allay some of his fears, I urged him to get independent help—lawyers, auditors—to investigate.
“They’re all the same,” he said. And then with a sigh, “There is nothing I can do.”
His bouts of anger grew more frequent over time. The drama of it seldom had to do with the reality at hand. Some of these fits he directed toward me. However, unlike others he railed against, I had to face the storm directly. I listened, and except when possessed by stubbornness, apologized whether I had earned his wrath or not. Expedience trumped truth or pride. Afterward, he usually loaded his voice with exaggerated friendliness, and occasionally left a note of apology on the counter or my bed.
He was scared, aging, and aware of his mental instabilities. Despite this, his dedication to writing never faltered. Writing continued to anchor him no matter how distracting circumstances became. His engine of creativity would not cease—or even slow down. But his conscious mind had slowed with age and the agents he had relied on for lubrication now corroded his body instead. His frustration grew.
Compared to others who scurried about, kowtowing to Tennessee’s moods, I knew I came off less than sympathetic. Relating to the better part of Tennessee was not easy, but in trying, I sometimes braked the acceleration of the crisis-of-the-moment. I did not buy the urgency and panic. They would recede.
Although he could laugh at this kind of behavior in others and even imbued some of his characters with it, Tennessee seemed blind to it in himself. All I could do was offer a counterweight to his swinging moods. This understanding preserved my own sanity, but its execution compounded my need for escape. My hours and duties still had not been defined, and the best indication of his opinion of me was his latest portrait of Jack in “The Donsinger Women.” However, I was not about to surrender my personal life in the hope of a more flattering literary treatment—nor would I argue with him about how I should live my life. 


Frigid New York air poured into the room when I slid the window to the side. I stuck my head out. Snow danced on the night air and swirled toward me from all directions. Falling silently out of the blackness, it obscured all things distant. No noise reached me, and only a soft radiance of light suggested the Manhattan streets thirty-seven floors below. Nearby towers, their bases dissolved, floated—immobile ghosts in the night. I held out my hand, caught a few flakes, and then pulled back into the hard-edged geometry of the room.
We were guests of the Commission for Cultural Affairs of the City of New York. Someone in the mayor’s office had chosen the UN Plaza Hotel so that Tennessee could enjoy the sky-high indoor pool. However, swimming pool or not, the hotel had a cold, modern luxury that Tennessee detested.
Earlier in the day, we had gone to Gracie Mansion where Elizabeth Ashley addressed the gathering, and then Mayor Koch presented Tennessee and five others with the Mayor’s Award of Honor. In his acceptance speech, Tennessee became emotional, crying as he dedicated the award to Rose. I wondered how he would hold up at the party the next night.
            Looking out on the snowy scene, I fingered the pack of matches in my pocket before pulling it out to light a cigarette. The embossed letters of my name ran across the glossy black cover. I could not decide if a personalized matchbook was chic or tacky, but I would use only this one. I had packed the rest away, and planned to stash the replacements when the maid left them in the morning.
            Besides our own matchbooks, Tennessee and I had each received a large basket of fruit and a bottle of iced champagne. We downed the first bottle, and then Tennessee commandeered the second to keep him company during his nocturnal writing session—not bothering to keep it chilled.
            I looked back out through the open window into a world transformed and yet the same. There was a second reason we were in New York, the party George Plimpton and Jean Stein were throwing in Tennessee’s honor the next evening. Although I had no idea who would attend, I looked forward to that.
Tennessee’s tapping filtered through the closed door. I needed sleep. I closed the window, got undressed, and slipped beneath the layers of covers.           


“Oh . . . don’t talk to her.”
            Distinctly Truman Capote’s voice.
            “She’s a whore. And her sister’s a worse whore.”
I did not look to the next room where I knew he was lying, curled on an oversized ottoman. We were at the party in Jean Stein’s upper-story apartment on Central Park West. Earlier, I had spoken with Truman. His companion pulled me aside and warned me that Truman had been on the seven-day vodka diet. That had not stopped him from raising his head from the ottoman to comment on my height in a whining, vaguely sexual way. He did not have enough energy, or perhaps interest, to sustain a conversation, and soon his head rested back on his sprawled arm.
About fifty guests mingled in the two large, high-ceilinged rooms. Turkish carpets covered the floors and walls. A bar was set up under a crystal chandelier in the marble entrance hall. I had gone to get a drink. As I asked the bartender for a vodka tonic, the door from the outside hallway opened, and in walked a woman I instantly recognized. Unescorted and with unpretentious grace, she fixed me warmly in the eye, walked over, and extended her hand. With a small smile, she said, “How do you do? I’m Jackie Onassis.”
My heart jumped to my throat, but words still came to my mouth. I introduced myself. After a maid took her coat, I managed some small talk while I got her a drink. She was soft-spoken—almost shy. She was easy to talk to.
Jackie and I turned from the bar. My hand at the small of her back—but not quite touching—I guided Jackie toward the party. It was at this point that the nodding Mr. Capote noticed her and raised himself up on the ottoman to call out his warning. I felt the little jolt in her back.
Time froze. A thousand scenarios, chivalrous to cowardly, rushed through my head. What to do?
Snap! I was back in the room. Jackie showed no reaction. The few people within earshot ignored the insult. I supposed they were in the habit of ignoring trouble from Truman, so I ignored it too. There was no other remedy, given his condition.
As we reached the edge of the party, people began to greet Jackie, and then a minute later, she found Tennessee. He took her on his arm and they retired to a corner of the room to talk privately. Tennessee had told me that since first meeting her while Jack was in the White House, he felt very close to her. He and Jack Kennedy had had a bond as well. Each of them had a sister who in her youth had grown excitable—Rose and Rosemary. And they both had parents who had acted on their belief that the best corrective for their daughter would be a lobotomy.
The other guests left them to talk alone.
I moved around the room meeting people, and later, while I was returning from getting another drink, a tall man approached me.
“What did Tennessee think of Dotson’s interview?” he said, and then added, “In the Paris Review.”
I laughed. That was a good story, and I was ready to tell it. I began by explaining that Dotson had never actually interviewed Tennessee, he had just cobbled together pieces of conversations they had had over the years. I explained how the real problem of it had been that Dotson quoted Tennessee as saying of Jane Wyman and Ronald Reagan, “The no-nose girl married the no-brains man.”
“This was published,” I said, “two weeks before our trip to the Kennedy Center Honors and the White House. Tennessee freaked—he could have killed Dotson. He was sure Reagan would take revenge. He wanted to cancel the trip.”
I took a long draft of my drink, and then continued as he stared at me, listening intently.
I explained how I had tried to calm Tennessee, but that it was Jane Smith’s intervention that had worked, and how when we arrived at the White House, Tennessee again seized up with fear and stood at the bar tossing glasses of wine until he got his click. Then, after we wobbled our way up the receiving line, Reagan kidded with me, but greeted Tennessee simply, and how after his first relief, Tennessee accused me of hogging the President. “So no,” I said, “He was not at all happy about that interview.”
“Well then . . .” he said, pulling himself up even straighter, “I see!” As he turned and marched away, I realized I had been talking to George Plimpton, one of our hosts for the evening—and the editor of The Paris Review.
There was nothing to do about the faux pas. At least Plimpton now knew how Tennessee had felt. I had not embellished the story—there was no need.
Once again, I visited the bar.
Drink in hand, I returned to the main room where I became captive to a plump and beaming woman whose teeth, I noticed, matched her string of pearls. My gaze meandered back and forth comparing the whites as she squeezed my hand and informed me several times of my height.
“Hello!”
I turned to find the voice that seemed to be addressing me.
“How are you?” Warren Beattie held out his hand as he approached. I pulled away from the pearly woman. He smiled broadly, his head cocked to one side.
“Tommy Tune, right?”
I nearly choked. Shortly after college, friends of mine who were trying to break into musical theater said that if Tommy Tune could work his 6' 6" on Broadway, I could too—but I was not interested in dancing or acting.
“No . . .” I explained to Warren who I was, and we talked for a few minutes. I was beginning to fade, and soon went in search of Tennessee.
I found him in a corner of the room with a small group of young people clustered around him. An energetic blonde woman seemed to be in charge. Tennessee introduced me to her, Cathy Lee Crosby. She looked familiar and the name rang a bell, so I shut my mouth and acted as if I knew of her, hoping my ignorance was not seeping through the cracks. She was as excited about meeting Tennessee as the woman with the pearls had been about my height. Tennessee basked in the attention from his little group. However, he too was fading, and after ten minutes, we decided to leave.
Just as Tennessee had not wanted to face Reagan, I did not want to face George Plimpton. However, I had to thank him and Jean Stein before leaving. To steel myself, I had a final drink and remembered that my faux pas had not been as bad as Truman’s insult. And he had gotten away with that.
After Tennessee said goodbye to several people, we found our hosts. My dread of facing Plimpton proved to be unfounded. He and Jean spoke only with Tennessee, ignoring me completely.
After final farewells, we rode the elevator down and walked out into the February night. We took a cab to the UN Plaza where, back in my room, I opened the window. The city spread out below—mile after mile in crisp, electric detail. Cold air blasted my face. I closed the window and got into bed. In twenty-four hours, we would be back in the tropics.


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