Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Chapter 7: Dinner at Seven-Thirty

Chapter 7
Dinner at Seven-Thirty


Thanksgiving Day, Tennessee, Jane, Vassilis, and I leaned against the bow railing, and, fortified with steaming cups of coffee, made the ferry crossing to Staten Island. Vassilis’s friend Mark Beard had invited us to join him, his boyfriend, Georg Osterman, and some others for turkey dinner. After the Cape May trip, I was more than ready to relax. Tennessee, back in New York and once more with friends and no business associates, was expansive. He even read a few of his poems from Mark’s copy of Androgyne, Mon Amour. The party ran late; we almost missed the last ferry.
After a few more days in New York, it was time to fly to Washington. Traveling, I became a walking tree hung with luggage: Tennessee’s oversized garment bag, my own smaller one, and my carry-on, straps caught precariously on the bumps of my knobby shoulders.
I was proud of my endurance, if not so much my strength. Loading was perilous, but once achieved, walking the straight-aways was easy. Ducking a doorway, reaching to the side, or even shifting a strap could cause the whole load to crash down around me. A slight shift of weight would send me veering off course. Tennessee carried his briefcase, a fat, tweed bag stuffed with medications and hand-typed manuscripts—his originals. No one else touched this bag.
            After getting out of the cab at the airport, I surveyed the short route ahead of me. I hoisted the load, leaned forward, and began moving. My garment bag slipped, but I regained my balance against the side of the automatic door. A few long strides and I dropped the bags at the first class counter. We checked in, found our gate, and walked onto the plane, which was already boarding.
After takeoff, the landing gear had barely retracted when Tennessee fell asleep. I stretched out lulled and drowsy in the roomy seat. Soon, the aroma of brewing coffee brought me back up, and before I knew it, the Washington Monument came into view. I put my face to the window to get my bearings, grateful that sometimes orientation was so easy—concrete monuments, geometric avenues. I watched as the tarmac slowly rose to greet us, knowing soon we would be on the ground and swept up in the rush of events.

I punched the elevator button for the third time. Tired from traveling, we had simply dropped the bags in our suite at the Watergate Hotel. With no energy to leave the hotel, or even to talk, we were headed to the hotel restaurant for a late lunch. We waited. Finally, the car arrived. The door opened, and a bundled-up woman stepped out.
Tennessee!” she said as she threw open her arms, and then grabbed him in a bear hug. “Oh my God!”
Maureen Stapleton opened her eyes and stepped back, her face lit up like all Manhattan. She closed her eyes and embraced him again, making a growl of pleasure. Tennessee’s mouth was open. A few syllables fell out. Maureen stepped back.
            “Didn’t know you’d be here,” she said, and brought her hand up, waving away some ambiguity, “…for the thing. You’re in the hotel?”
            “Yes.” He pointed. “Down the hall.”
            “Oh Tenn! I’m so glad you made it!” Turning to me, she looked up in wonder.
Tennessee said, “I don’t believe you’ve met my grandson, Scott.”
At forty years apart, it could have gone either way—son or grandson. I hesitated, missing my cue to soothe.
            What kind of breeding have you been up to? Progeny this size!” She took my hands, and her touch was as warm as her eyes. She cocked her head while stepping back to take another look. She squeezed my hands.
            “I’m afraid I’m just his assistant—but Helen Hayes is my mother.”
            “Oooo!” Tennessee howled. I had heard him say before, several times and with astonishment, that many people mistakenly thought he was married to Helen Hayes. He rolled his eyes. “I plead the fifth…fifth of gin—possibly more!”
            “You two don’t play fair—and I’m afraid to ask!”
            “Oh Maureen…” Tennessee gave her another hug. “We’re going to lunch. Will you join us?”
            “No, I can’t. You’ll be there tomorrow—at the dinner, right?”
Tennessee nodded.
“I’ll see you then,” she said. “It’ll be small. Artists’ Committee—couple hundred.”
We said goodbye, and then stood waiting for the elevator, watching as she disappeared down the gradual curve of the hall.

After a good night’s sleep, we began the next day in a semblance of normal. Tennessee called the front desk to request a manual typewriter. What arrived was not only electric, but had a spinning ball that branded paper with such force that Tennessee recoiled after every strike.
“Damn it! See if they can’t find something more suitable for a person of my . . .” He brought his hands up, looking at his fingers as they typed softly in the air, “. . . delicate disposition.” He bent over and yanked the plug out by the cord. “No electrics.” He turned toward his bedroom. “I’m going for a swim.”
As he changed, I located a map of the hotel so he could find the pool. I decided to approach the front desk in person regarding the typewriter. I rode the elevator down to the lobby, and holding my frame erect, strode up to the desk, attracting the attention of several clerks.
“I wonder if you could help me,” I said. “I have a personal request from Tennessee Williams.” They were young, interns perhaps, rather than career clerks. “The hotel was kind enough to send Tennessee a typewriter—but he can’t deal with electrics. Any idea where we could get him a manual?” I met the eyes of the one who seemed to be in charge. “He’s begun a new play.”
            One of them had a manual at home. They huddled and worked out how to cover the desk so the typewriter could be procured quickly. Management consented.
In no hurry, I explored the Watergate complex, a small city in itself. When I returned to our suite, Tennessee was back from his swim. A manual Smith Corona and a neat stack of typing paper sat on the desk. Tennessee presented me with a cashmere sweater he had bought at the men’s shop on his way back from the pool.
“It’s beautiful,” I said, and as he stood before me, beaming. I tried it on. “Thank you.” I could not imagine how he knew—or could find—my size in a hotel men’s shop.
For the rest of the day, Tennessee worked on revisions to A House Not Meant to Stand for the spring production in Chicago. I retreated to my room. I had seen several of his plays on stage or screen, and had read some too—but not recently. I decided to read them all, and I was now on my third, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Before we left Key West, a friend of Tennessee’s had asked him to autograph one of his plays. “Hopes to make a lot of money when I die,” Tennessee said angrily as soon as the man had gone. I was shocked at his assessment—and by his vehemence. I resolved never to ask him for an autograph, photograph, or anything else that might be saleable. I also decided never to read his work in front of him. I was not confident of my ability to fully understand his plays, and I did not want to come off as an idiot if he asked my opinion.
Late in the afternoon, we showered and dressed for the first event of the Kennedy Center Honors, the Board of Trustees Dinner. There, the awards would actually be presented, without television cameras and in front of the Artists Committee.
At the taxi stand, we chanced on Edward Albee and decided to share a cab. Tennessee took the front seat as Albee and I climbed into the rear. My head pressed against the ceiling, and my knees angled over the hump at the center. The conjunction of friendliness and competition produced a halting cross-talk between the playwrights. Tennessee repeatedly pivoted, facing forward and then turning back to speak. Each time he faced forward, Albee looked at me as if he were sizing up prey.
“I insist they book me on Eastern,” Tennessee said, turning toward us again, “The food is better.”
“Hmmm,” said Albee.
As Tennessee turned back in his seat, Albee’s knee brushed mine. I drew in a breath. He did not know that the best friend of my first lover in college had dated him for several months—and had lived to tell.
I returned a thin smile—Mona Lisa, the boss’s boy.
Tennessee turned to the back again, and then he turned further and stared at me.
I smiled back at him, too.

The cocktail reception was well under way when we arrived. We secured drinks and I looked around to see many faces I recognized from film and television—or did I? Most of them looked like good impersonators, but smaller than life. Without makeup, lighting, and the camera-lens’s perspective, they seemed different, dream-like.
Tennessee was talking to Richard Chamberlain—probably.
I set out on my own to see what would happen. I schmoozed my way through some height inquiries. Then I heard a laugh.
I had heard this laugh before—eight years before. It was the spring of 1973, when Lillian Gish spoke in the chapel at Denison University, my college. Her memoir, The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me, had been released a few years before. She was on tour lecturing on the same subject. I went out of curiosity, curiosity about someone from a bygone era, and because my friends in theater declared I had to.
However, it was not to be the usual lecture. Lillian Gish took off and soared with her first word. She warbled and giggled through her tales of the perils and triumphs of the early days of filmmaking. Her presence, delicate as a bird, yet mighty as a pipe organ, filled the vaulted space, belying the small woman on stage. Life was full of possibility, and it resonated through my bones. I was not the only one to fall in love that evening.
I heard the laugh again, looked around, and found her behind a boulder of a man several steps away. I paused to settle my prickling rush, but caught her eye briefly while in the middle of it. I began walking a wide, casual circumference, moving slowly closer to her and then farther away. If caught, I did not want to appear to be a psychopath. I paused briefly for occasional height inquiries, glancing toward her as I delivered my canned replies. I studied her face as she spoke, her dress, and her movements.
The boulder moved on.
“I think I’ve noticed you,” she said.
“Oh,” I fidgeted. “I forget my size—think I can move about . . . unnoticed.”
She laughed, fingering her pendant.
“You spoke at my college some years ago. Great stories—and you lit up the stage. I’ll never forget it.”
“Ah yes . . .” She sighed. “D. W. Griffith and the movies—I’m about talked out on that. It was a very long time ago—those movies.” She looked me in the eye. “There’s been plenty to do since then! People want to hear those stories, so I tell them.” She laughed. “I love telling them.”
“I know.” I remembered the feeling. “You were . . . illuminating.”
She brought the pendant up. It caught fire in the light, which it returned in soft diffused colors.
“The largest opal in the world…” she said. It almost engulfed the silver cross it was set in. She stared at it, transfixed, as if seeing it for the first time. “Don’t ask me what I had to do to get it!” She let out a peal of laughter, released the pendant, and slapped her knee.
“You and I make a pair,” she said, “the beginning and the end of height.” Her eyes lit up. “Let’s go on parade!” She took my arm and we were off down an informal corridor through the center of the crowd. Lillian waved and called greetings to people she knew, as I nodded shyly to a few who seemed to think they should know me.
“Oh, it is fun seeing so many people I have known all these years—and new ones too. More of those, I suppose. I’m the only one left from my day—almost . . .”
We stopped in front of a man who had been watching us, smiling. His thin mustache matched his full head of white hair. He might have been born wearing a tuxedo.
“Don’t let her wear you out,” he said. “She’s only . . .”
“Don’t you dare . . .”
“You love your age—and all the rest of it.” Their eyes met for a moment. He turned to me and spoke in a stage whisper, “She’s eighty-eight—could have married my father.”
“I believe you are too old for me!” she said.
He extended his hand, “Douglas Fairbanks . . . Junior.”
I introduced myself, and then Lillian began speaking to him. I was there, and yet I was at a distance, observing us.
A man approached. “We’re going on up to dinner now,” he said, allowing no doubt. “Elevators are to the left.”
I hated having to leave, but said good-bye and walked through the already moving crowd to find Tennessee. He was talking to an older couple who were just breaking away from him. We made our way to the elevators.
After the short ride, we stepped into the Benjamin Franklin Room. Chandeliers burned high above tables spread with crystal and silver on white linen. A huge bouquet of lilies and mums sat in the center of each table. Many people milled about the room talking, although many others had taken their seats. We began walking across the open area toward the tables on the far side.
“Scott! Scott!” That voice—must have been my imagination. Who at this dinner would know me or call out to me like that? I looked around cautiously. Surely, I was not the only Scott.
“Yoo-hoo! Scott!” Halfway across the room, Meryl Streep was waving and calling my name. I was thrilled and embarrassed. I turned to Tennessee. “I’ll catch up to you in a minute.” I did not wait for his response—it would not have mattered.
“Wow! Here we are again,” she said. “You look so . . . tall. I didn’t . . .” She blushed. “It’s that tux—looks great.”
“Thanks, I’m a little overwhelmed. I have a regular life that’s a little different than this.”
“Yeah, me too.” She laughed.
“I want you to meet someone,” she said. She turned to the man beside her, catching his hand. “My husband, Don.”
We shook hands.
“Scott works for Tennessee Williams. We met at Milton’s.”
She turned to me. “So how are you? How’s that going?”
“Oh . . . fine.” I scanned the crowd and spotted Tennessee. He was lost. I wanted to tell her that Tennessee thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen—but not in a rush. Duty pulled. I was torn.
“Sorry,” I said, “Tennessee’s lost. We have to find our table—I need to run.”
“Oh,” she said, “catch up with you later?”
“Sure . . . great!”
I picked my way through the crowd and joined Tennessee, who was shaking hands and laughing as he moved slowly around a table. I got directions from a waiter. When we reached our table, Alexander Haig was taking his seat at the next table over. As Secretary of State, he would be the keynote speaker and the official representative of the government.
Tennessee and I walked around our table introducing ourselves. The wife of the president of ARCO, the largest corporate sponsor of the Honors, sat next to my place. Tennessee’s seat was on the opposite side. The president of ARCO sat two places down from him, and in-between, Audrey Hepburn stood behind her chair, chewing a knuckle. She was to be the main speaker, and represented the Artists Committee.
She stood statuesque in a classic gown and jewels. Thin gold wires had been fashioned into the top of her up-swept hair like a circle of tiny flagpoles, and attached to the top of each of these was a small gilded leaf, flying sideways. The whole formed the barest suggestion of a crown. Her eyes glanced nervously around the room.
General Haig stood up and began banging his knife against a glass, calling the room to order. Tennessee pulled out Audrey’s chair. She paused, confused, and then smiled and took her seat. I returned to my own place opposite them.
            After Haig’s brief welcoming remarks, dinner was served. The woman to my left was engaged in a business conversation with the man on the other side of her. I turned to my right. The wife of the president of ARCO and I seemed to be in the same predicament—row boats among ocean liners. She could not see her husband through the centerpiece, and I could not see Tennessee. I could not see Audrey either, but bobbing just above the flowers, I could see her little pennants—gilded semaphore from a distant shore.
I had grown up in the suburbs, and fell back on experience. Mrs. ARCO and I made our own little island—a suburban kaffeeklatsch in the midst of the glittering dinner.                   


During the interval between the meal and the presentation of awards, I got up from the table and stretched discreetly, feeling the relief in my legs. Tennessee rushed over.
            “She must have been drinking!” he said.
            “Audrey?”
            “Maureen!” He rocked on his feet like a child.
            “Maureen? I haven’t seen. . . . Stapleton?”
“Shh!” His finger up, he pulled me further from the table.
“Maureen,” he said, “she came right up to the table—to Audrey.”
“When?”
“Just now—a minute ago. She barged right in.” He could barely get it out. “She says—right there—right to Audrey . . . ‘You’re the most goddamn elegant cunt in the place . . . so relax!’”
“No!”
“She did—I swear it.”
“Well . . . did she?”
“What?”
“Did it relax her?”
“Oooo!” he howled. “I’ll have to go back and see. She couldn’t be more nervous. Those wires in her head are conducting something—very Bride of Frankenstein.”
            “OK,” I said, “Keep an eye on her—and rescue her from that ARCO guy. I’m headed for the loo.”
            Did Maureen actually say that? Tennessee loved this kind of thing—conflicting worlds in a crucible. He had built his plays on these conflicts: frail and graceful versus confident and bombastic; poetic versus crass and realistic; delusion versus reality. He had told stories of Maureen before, outrageous things he claimed she hollered out at parties. They had all been invitations to the daring—nothing quite like this.
I wished I could have seen Audrey’s face, and yet, had I, I would have had to turn away.

Behind the men’s room door there was an anteroom—white walls dressed with mirrors and gilded moldings. Three dark, frosted windows loomed at the opposite end. I could find no sign of a door other than the one through which I had entered. An older man, the white in his thick black hair making him look like he had made a short run through a heavy snowfall, was feeling the wall to the left, examining the molding just above waist level.
“Can’t find the door!” he said. “It’s got to be here somewhere. I need to get to the plumbing.”
“Been looking long?”
“Well, for a minute.” He scratched his head. “I saw a door closing—just as I came in. Over here. Can’t find it.”
I could not see any sign of a door either. “He has to come out. Let’s wait.”
“OK then—but not too long!”
I looked around the piss-elegant room. “Looks like Versailles in here.”
“I know the French,” he said, “and they don’t hide the plumbing!”
I looked again at the windows and walked in that direction. “We could open one of these windows a few inches . . .”
He laughed. “Go ahead! I’m too old to be messing with security. State Department here—you could land your ass in Alcatraz.”
At that moment, someone opened a door. We grabbed it and found our way to relief.
When I returned to the anteroom, he was there ahead of me.
“Hey, have a minute?” he asked.
“Sure.”
“I want you to meet my date for the evening.”
“Great! I don’t have a date,” I said. “I’m here with the boss.”
“I hear that!” he said. “Come on.” I followed him through the door back into the banquet hall.
He turned to me. “Joe Williams.”
            We shook hands as I introduced myself.
            “Wait right here—I’ll bring her over.”
            I looked around the room. People were moving between the tables talking. Joe came back, pushing a woman in a wheelchair. She wore a shawl over her gown. Her highly coiffed hair had to be a wig.
“Miss Ella Fitzgerald,” he said, presenting her.
 “This is the young man who barely escaped a trip to Alcatraz.”
She had trouble lifting her head high enough to find mine. Through her glasses, her eyes were gigantic. Hanging on to my composure, I leaned over and took her hand.
             “She just got out of the hospital two days ago.” Then louder, to Ella, “She has no business coming to some party.” He looked at me. “Said she’d have my ass if I didn’t bring her. She’s in this chair now—but wait till she’s up. Ain’t nobody wrote the book on determination like Ella Fitzgerald.” He laughed, and then leaned back, thumbs in his waistband. “I’ll be keeping my ass now.”
Ella smiled.
Joe asked her how she was enjoying the evening. She nodded a vague response.
“She tires, and then her energy comes back later. I think we better get back to the table.”
            I watched Joe wheel his date back across the room, talking animatedly to her the whole way. I lingered a little longer, soaking up the scene.
            When I returned to the table, Audrey Hepburn was studying her notes. Alexander Haig began banging on his water glass again, and then he stood up and gave a few remarks before turning the floor over to Audrey.
My mind wandered as she presented awards to Count Basie, Cary Grant, Helen Hayes, Jerome Robbins, and Rudolf Serkin. I was exhausted. This was the actual awards presentation, although the next night’s gala ceremony in the Opera House of the Kennedy Center would be taped for broadcast. The presentation dragged on. It felt like everyone there made a speech, but I did not hear them. I applauded mechanically—I had had enough for one day.
            Eventually, General Haig stood up and barked his final remarks. The ceremony was over. We left the building, took a cab back to the hotel, and I, after undressing and kicking out the bottom of the sheets, fell into a deep, deep sleep.

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