Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Chapter 4: A Birthday Party

Chapter 4
A Birthday Party


“Let me tell you—I used to be like . . . this.” The bald little man pointed his index finger straight out. “But now . . .” He tipped his head back to look me in the eye as his finger relaxed into a curve. He laughed. “Seeing you way up there reminds me of those days.”
Vir-gil!” a woman called from across the room.
He put one hand on my waist, and with an exaggerated lean, peered beyond me and waved back to her.
It was his birthday. We had not yet been introduced.
We were in Milton Goldman’s apartment. Milton, Tennessee’s friend and an agent who represented actors at ICM, International Creative Management, the agency that represented Tennessee, had invited us earlier in the day. “Tennessee, we’re having a little gathering. Virgil Thomson—eighty-five. Drop by for cake and ice cream.”
I knew only a little of Thomson’s music—what he had composed for Gertrude Stein’s opera, Four Saints in Three Acts. I had first heard it in a high school music appreciation class, and like a trumpet from above, it changed my ear.
“Happy Birthday!” I said, and introduced myself. In turn, he introduced me to the man next to him, David Hockney, who, grinning, had walked over during the finger-acrobatics. As I shook his hand firmly, I felt goose bumps appear. I knew Hockney’s painting.
I was in a pool of luminaries—luminaries disguised as regular people. Who else was in this room? What would I say? I had to dampen my excitement. Somehow, I would find something to say. They were, after all, people. I did know what not to do. People fascinated by height had approached me all my life, excited to exclaim about the obvious. Still, my heart raced to think I had just met Virgil Thomson and David Hockney—two guests, a flirt and an amused observer.
Earlier in the day, we had visited the offices of Lee and John Eastman, Tennessee’s father-and-son attorneys. As we sat in John’s office, he and Tennessee discussed business while I studied framed photos that included John’s sister Linda and her husband, Paul McCartney. Would I—could I—possibly meet them?
After finishing there, we went to the offices of ICM, where Tennessee met with his agent, Luis Sanjorjo, Milton, and the Broadway producer Zev Buffman. They tried to convince Tennessee that Buffman should get rights to stage a revival of Sweet Bird of Youth. Buffman’s plan was to resurrect the acting career of the recently-back-in-stride Liz Taylor in a role that would mirror her own situation almost exactly. However, Tennessee felt she was simply too old for the part, and he could not be persuaded. I loved the idea, but kept my mouth shut—I was learning.
Less important business followed, and then lunch. After that, we made a trip to Tennessee’s doctor—one of them. Part of my job was to have Tennessee’s “eating pills” always at hand. Tennessee had to take Cotazym, “the desiccated pancreas of a hog,” prescribed for pancreatitis, and Donnatal before each meal. I did not handle his other drugs. He took at least five more regularly, as well as Valium and Seconal on an “as-needed” basis. He also injected himself with a serum that arrived in glass ampoules by mail. These “vitamin B” shots animated him. He mixed all of these with alcohol and each other.
I knew that at least three different doctors prescribed the drugs. I wanted to know how the drugs interacted—if they were safe together—so I had called ahead and made an appointment to meet with the doctor privately.
He greeted me in his posh office after the check-up, while Tennessee waited in an examination room. 
“What’s his condition?” I asked. “How strong is he?”
The doctor looked like a seventy-year-old Christopher Plummer—glazed. Waves of Nirvana emanated from him.
“Oh, he’s strong—has his ailments.” He looked me in the eye. “Don’t worry. He’s fine.”
“What about . . .” I listed the drugs I knew of, not trusting Tennessee to tell the full story—he wanted to replace the Valium that had disappeared with Robert. “Are they safe—together?”
“Don’t worry . . . yes.”
“Interactions. No interactions?”
“They’re fine. He’s fine,” and with a gesture of patronizing benevolence, he dismissed me. “He’s lucky to have someone who cares.”
I saw the trace of a smirk on his lips. I was sure he meant Tennessee was lucky to have someone naïve and dismissible. I was sorry I had not pressed harder. My concern was not only about Tennessee’s taking the drugs, but the way he took them. Some, meant to be taken on a regular schedule, he took on a whim, and he popped Valium and Seconal on top of alcohol—lots of it.
Without a doctor’s help, I could not influence Tennessee’s habits—I would lose my job. Having seen the doctor’s eyes, I lost my nerve and forgot to ask about warning signs. I consoled myself by remembering that Tennessee had been taking these drugs, and more, for years. I thought too that he might dismiss me if he knew I had gone behind his back. Only in an emergency would I do that again.
After leaving, we walked to a pharmacy around the corner, but before we reached the druggist’s counter, Tennessee stopped in his tracks and pulled a letter from his jacket pocket.
“I almost forgot,” he said. “Could you mail this for me? I’ll meet you back at the hotel.”
I would not know what prescriptions he was filling.

We arrived late for Virgil Thomson’s party. Milton’s apartment was on the Upper East Side. A baby grand, its top strewn with sheet music, dominated the room. The furniture was substantial, yet unremarkable, serving the needs of comfort rather than aesthetics. The largely undecorated, pale green walls called no attention to themselves. There was a quiet confidence about the space—a setting not meant to boast or flatter, but to relax and serve its occupants.
            “My! You’re a tall one!” The voice and the brassy laugh that followed were unmistakable. Ethel Merman was holding court. Two fawning, middle-aged men in cardigans flanked her. The men, dramatic in expression, made a fuss over my height—sizing me up, speaking in stage whispers to Ethel. By contrast, Ethyl flirted boldly. Like a racecar, she revved her voice, just waiting for an excuse to hit the gas.  
            We had barely begun speaking when Milton came out of the kitchen carrying a blazing cake. Ethel, seeing her cue, let loose and led the pack in “Happy Birthday.”
When the song was finished, the party reshuffled as guests lined up for cake.
I claimed a slice and stopped to stand between the dining room and the living room. Milton approached me. “Have you met Meryl Streep?”
I suppose it was because I was standing, juggling a cup of punch and a plate of cake—and trying to figure out how to eat or drink any of it as well—that I had not noticed the woman sitting quietly on a lone chair beside me. I was standing next to the actress I most admired.
She was eating a piece of cake.
“Oh, hi!” she said as she stood up with a half-giggle, wiping the icing mustache from her lip. Her eyes, the way she turned her head, her laugh—put me immediately at ease. After introductions, she asked about my working for Tennessee. We talked about my duties, how I liked the job so far.
“That must be amazing. . . . Working—being around. . . . I guess you see—experience . . .” Her gestures completed the thoughts.
We talked about her work.
“Oh, I start a wonderful project soon.” She fidgeted, and then her face dropped. “I won’t be home for a while.” She sighed. “I’ll be away.”
We were interrupted—someone needed her attention.
“It was nice meeting you,” she said, as she looked me in the eye. “Good luck with that job. He’s lucky.” And with that, she slipped away.
Tennessee joined me as I watched her cross the room. “I believe Meryl Streep is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen,” he said.
I agreed. I knew I could not define that beauty; it was more than just physical. Only three years before, she had burst into my awareness as I watched The Deer Hunter. In a few weeks, her new film, Sophie’s Choice, would open. I could hardly wait.
“They first noticed her,” Tennessee said, “in Twenty-Seven Wagons Full of Cotton.
I could feel his pride. His plays were not just plays—they were vehicles that had launched many careers.
“Well,” he said, “let’s find some dinner. Cake doesn’t agree with me.”
And so I followed him. We thanked our host and hostess, and headed out into the wet November evening in search of a good hamburger.

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