Sunday, December 15, 2019

PAW, PAW, PAW! There go the Christmas ornaments

I don't know what it is about  cats, but they seem to have a compulsion to bat things off the edge of tables, shelves, etc. A cat thing, like lurking in bags and cardboard boxes, kneading your legs with claws out, and licking you very sweetly with a rough little tongue before sinking in their fangs.

Friday, December 13, 2019

The Troll Doll Channel: DAM, I love these trolls!

Sharing a little bit of one of my favorite hobbies, which I hope YouTube doesn't take away from me. I have over 700  subscribers now, and though many have 7 MILLION, to have any at all is gratifying for me. It is so easy to get caught up in numbers as a source of personal worth. I don't know what the future will bring. 2020 SEEMS lucky, but is anything really lucky? I remember all those zeroes in 2000, but it was 2001, the actual start of the millennium, when everything changed forever, and a terrible ugliness was born. Please, God, if you're there, save us from this! Meantime, I will try to enjoy my ever-burgeoning collection.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Oscar Levant: goodbye, and good night



Notes on an all too brief encounter in Hollywood


“Good-night, Oscar Levant, wherever you are. . . .”

On an April afternoon in Los Angeles, the Walter Matthaus gave a luncheon for the Charles Chaplins. People began waging their campaign for invitations in early March.

The weather was sublime; the kind of day that strangled you with the joy of living. It was a day that made abandoning the East for the West a rational move. It was a day that made everyone glad to be alive . . . or almost everyone. . . .

Sulking in the shadows, a spectral silhouette, loomed the face that launched a thousand analysts. Was I seeing a ghost? I thought Oscar Levant had been dead for years.

This was one of his rare sorties of the last decade and he observed it by scowling fiercely from the deep recesses of a rocking chair.

A die-hard New Yorker assaulted by western resort wear, he wore a dark and somber suit that looked like it last saw action in the 1950’s with Harpo Marx at “21” or Dorothy Parker at the Algonquin.

His feet sat passively in slender, shining wing tips reviewing the passing parade of patent leather boots and white Gucci loafers. It was as if he were a British colonialist struggling to maintain civility amidst savages.

“Oscar Levant”—the name was a household word, like “polio" or “anemia;" a name synonymous with merciless humor, hypochondria, insomnia, insanity, George Gershwin, and chain-smoking. He was a brilliant, sickly legend—terrified of living and petrified of dying.

I loved him in movies but he always looked like the stand-in’s stand-in, or the anemic son of a studio head. There was this ugly guy wisecracking with Gene Kelly in An American in Paris, or falling over Fred Astaire and I could never figure out how he ever got there.

But in Rhapsody in Blue he played himself—concert pianist, wit, Gershwin’s old friend and foremost interpreter of his music—and he stole the movie.

He wrote three books—A Smattering of Ignorance, The Memoirs of an Amnesiac, and The Unimportance of Being Oscar—crammed with anecdotes about celebrities and insights about himself: his army of analysts, the legion of doctors, his addiction to pills, the convulsions, the shock treatments, the mental hospitals. All told in crisp, concise story form.

His television show in the late Fifties was a weekly video happening. People everywhere were exclaiming, “Did you hear what Oscar said last night!” Because Oscar would say anything. And did.

Taking time out for assorted nervous breakdowns, he returned to the air in 1960, announcing:

“This is Oscar Levant in Meet The Mess. This is Oscar Levant, who has made insanity America’s favorite hobby. My show is now syndicated. It goes to the Menninger clinic in Topeka, Bellevue in New York, and the psychiatric ward at Mt. Sinai in Los Angeles.”

I was never so excited to meet anyone. What with his penchant for pretty girls and my fixation for ailing underdogs, we were instantly smitten.

He clutched my arm and I helped him outside. He seemed very ill and had great difficulty walking. “How old are you?” he asked, without much hope.


“I’m sixty-five,” he said proudly. And while he looked awful, it was hard to believe. He seemed more like a little kid imitating a dying old man.
“I’ve always been very boyish,” he offered offhandedly. “William Le Baron at RKO called me Peter Pan. . . .” Tremors contorted his face into grimaces, interrupting his speech.

I asked Oscar if he were all right. What a dumb question.

“My wife took me to a doctor and he treated me for Parkinson’s disease, which it turned out I didn’t have,” he said venomously, “but the treatment gave me Parkinson’s symptoms.” He stopped short.

Looking steely and suspicious, years of service on her sleeve, his wife June appeared and took his arm, announcing as if to a child, “Come on Oscar, it’s time to eat lunch now.”

He glowered at her furiously, muttering, “I read where Lyndon Johnson had a heart attack from smoking too much. Maybe I should start again.” And sulking and seething, he was firmly led away.

After lunch, I asked him if I could take a photograph. “Of course,” June answered quickly. “Where do you want us?”

I pointed to a chair I had for Oscar. He had barely lowered himself onto it when June landed on his lap. His face went ashen and he limped into the house, cawing crazily, “June’s trying to murder me! She sat on my lap and almost killed me. . . . She almost broke my legs!”

Later, I went to say good-bye to Oscar. “Will you talk to me?” he pleaded, immersed in an overstuffed sofa.

“I’m sorry, I have to leave.”

“Can’t you stay a little longer?” he asked weakly.

“I really can’t, I’m sorry,” and I bent down to give him a kiss.

“I love you,” he said plaintively, looking up at me from the depths of the couch.

“I love you too,” I said. And I did.

On a Thursday, four months I later, I called him about possibly arranging an interview the following week. “Can’t you come today?” he croaked urgently, as if next week would be too late. I could.

It was the same old, large house he had lived in for twenty years— across from Jimmy Stewart, down the block from Lucille Ball—the kind of house you don’t notice on a street with homes designed to be seen.

Oscar sank slowly into a chair in the living room—faint from opening the front door. There were no maids. The house was silent and simple.

With his pajamas discreetly buttoned at the neck while a robe, slightly askew, slid off his shoulders, he looked like a kid home sick from school.

Extraordinary hands, a pale, translucent yellow, dangled delicately from his sleeves—elegant and sensitive contradictions of the fiendish face. His furtive eyes were a faded green and his teeth looked like old piano keys. His hair lay limply in oily strands, and blistered, black leather slippers hung on veined, snow-white feet. As a physical specimen, he deviated violently from the ideal.

It was as if his face and body had already begun to die. Oscar was merely dispensing with preliminaries.

He camouflaged his terror with toughness and impatience, bombarding me intensively with stories familiar from his books.

“You know what I said about Zsa Zsa Gabor? She not only worships the Golden Calf; she barbecues it for lunch.

“And I used to say I grew organic marijuana and I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.

“I also said ‘I live on the periphery’ and ‘So little time, so little to do,’” he announced proudly.

Squeezing out the words with winces and grimaces, he sped on in spurts, “Judy Garland loved me. We met and she hugged me and I said, ‘This is the greatest embrace of pharmacopoeia in history.’

“Joe Kennedy loved me too. He leaned over to me once at Pavilion and said, ‘You know, you’re one of the only Jews I like.’”

The stories flowed like wine. “When Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe got married and Marilyn became Jewish, I said, ‘Now she’s kosher, he can eat her.’ And they took me off the air,” he crowed triumphantly.

“You didn’t see my show. I was brilliant on that show. It was after I had left all the mental hospitals, God, all the pills I took. . . .”

He continues in frantic free association, “Did you see Mick Jagger on the Cavett show? All that hollering and sybaritic dancing. He seemed overripe, priapic. Do you know what ‘priapic’ means? A continual state of erection. And it’s very. . . .” He begins to sing, “It’s very clear . . .” and trails off.

“I had quite a time in London in 1946. I was slightly priapic myself. There was a club . . . well, I laid every dame in the place—except a Jewish girl named Mimi. And she’d make café au lait. I was so impressed by her manners. A prostitute. You know what she said to me? ‘I suspect you of buttering your toast on both sides.’ So I told my analyst and he said, ‘Why didn’t you have an affair with her?’

“I couldn’t. I liked her.”

He was like some Lewis Carroll character who spoke in rhyme or riddle. His idioms were anecdotes and the songs he sang.

“My father was a great man,” he raced on nonstop, “he died very young. What of? I don’t want to say the word. It’s too terrible what he went through. I left it out of the book.

“My father told me a story once: A boy killed his mother and cut out her heart and the boy tripped and the heart said, ‘Did you hurt yourself, son?’

“My father told me that about my mother. It really bedeviled me,” he paused, looking pained.

“One of my sisters-in-law had the chutzpah to tell me that while my mother was carrying me, she tried to get rid of me during her pregnancy.” He looked at me, incredulous. “Isn’t that a helluva’ thing to tell a young boy?”

He continued compulsively, “Once I said to Bill Inge that September was the worst month because my mother died in September. But Inge said that August was the worst month because he went to Menninger’s and it was always empty in August. All the doctors were on vacation.”

He stood up shakily, sashed his robe and sat down, “You know I read a lot. This eye closes when I read and when I play the piano it stays open. Does my blinking bother you?” He looked suddenly concerned. “Is it pretty bad?”
June entered briefly. “She’s a terrific dame, terrific,” Oscar said soberly when she left. “She used to make her entrance to my act doing a cartwheel on a cane.”

Suddenly the old green eyes darted in my direction and he angrily erupted, pointing a fragile finger accusingly, “Why aren’t you taking notes? What’s the matter? Don’t you like my stories? These are terrific stories!”

Oy. Of course they were terrific. Although I’d read most of them. But what I wanted was something more personal than a performance. I replied that I loved the stories but that I wanted to hear more about him.

“These are about me!” he insisted.

Hmm. So I explained that he was one of the most special people I had ever met and I wanted very much to know him.

“Really?” he said in a small, surprised voice. And bravely battling gravity, he smiled. It was like watching salmon swim upstream. I melted.

“Help me into the den,” he said. “I want to play you something.”

He shuffled in and sat down at a piano, the top thickly thatched with old sheet music. “I can’t play too long,” he warned. “I’ve got arthritis in my back and Morton’s neuralgia in my feet and I’ve had this bacterial disease. . . .”

He opened a piece of music and smiled softly. It was like finding his first love. “I love songs more than anything,” he crooned quietly, almost to himself. Then he said hastily, “Half the keys don’t play,” and he began playing But Not For Me, confiding happily, “These are lyrics no one knows—the third verse.”

And in his robe and pajamas and a faltering falsetto, he sang softly, “It all began so well,/ But what an end./ This is the time a fella’/ Needs a friend./ He ain’t done right by Nell./ However, what the hell/ I guess he’s not for me.”

I’ve had more than my share of moments in my life, but this was one of the best. He savored it a second then snapped, “You know what Ira Gershwin said about me? Oscar is a masochist because he wants his cassock kissed.”

And then he disappeared into a mountain of sheet music, ferreting furiously, surfacing triumphant. “Look what I found!” he crowed, waving Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto. He played it slowly, with “customary arthritic abandon.” “That’s one of the pieces I played the night my mother died. I haven’t played it in years.”

Frail, pale hands flying, slippers scurrying over the pedals, piano wires rattling; Oscar was in his heaven. Now all was right with the world.

Music was the miracle drug, a magical time machine; the tremors and blinking disappeared, his ailments vanished. Radiant and rapturous in the arms of his music, he went from Prokofiev to Schoenberg like a madman in love.

At the front door, he asked timidly, “Is it okay if I kiss you good-bye? Just on the cheek,” he added properly. “I don’t have any designs you know.”

It was a sunny summer evening, Oscar peered outside, turned on the porch light and asked anxiously, “Can you see all right?” I was hooked.

The next day he left a message to call him. I phoned from a friend’s house and he asked for the number and called back; he’d remembered more stories he wanted me to take down.

Then he announced proudly, “My grandson came to visit me today—I kiss him. . . . Could I call you?” Assured he could, he sighed, “Well, I feel like I’ve found a friend. Thank you very much for listening to me.”

He phoned over the weekend and I was out, so he called my friend, sometimes two and three times a day, with tales of George Gershwin and Alexander Woollcott, Humphrey Bogart and “Paganinny,” as he pronounced it.

I called him Monday at two o’clock to confirm our visit at four. “Oh no,” he wailed urgently, “that’s too late, come over now. Give me ten minutes.”

Twenty minutes later, I rang the bell. June, who was just leaving, answered it. Oscar was upstairs resting after practicing the piano and she went up to get him.

“Oh God,” I heard June gasp over and over. I froze. Well rehearsed after thirty years, she called the emergency squad. “Come right away, there’s something wrong with my husband. I think he’s dead.”

I went upstairs. June was standing in the hall trembling. “He had a towel over his face,” she stammered. “He covers his head with a towel because he always sweats after practicing. I thought he was taking a nap.”

He was lying in bed, waxen hands across his chest, flanked by a battery of pill bottles. The faded green eyes were locked wide ahead. His mouth was stretched taut and open in a soundless, outraged scream.

I had never seen anyone dead before. In the movies someone always feels for a pulse, so I felt for his pulse. My heart was beating so hard I could only feel my own.

I couldn’t believe it. The man who was constantly terrified death would arrive before you did was dead. I always thought he was kidding. We had always mourned him. He’d devoted his life to dying—he would die forever.

We were going to be buddies. I was looking forward to a siege of phone calls, an assault of anecdotes. I had been dreaming of afternoon visits and talks, listening to him practice in the late-day sun with the keys that didn’t play and the piano wires that rattled and Gershwin and Berlin and Schoenberg. . . . I was going to be his friend.

Now he lay there like a furious old bird. Shot down quietly on a summer afternoon, with no fanfare or glory, no grand farewell; he died in bed with a towel on his head, his slippers off and his pajamas on.

For a man who spent his life dreading it, death seemed cruelly anticlimactic.

“What is—what was the man’s name, Miss?” asked the young policeman routinely filling out his forms.

“Oscar Levant,” I said.

He showed no signs of recognition. A tourist bus glided by on its guide to movie stars’ homes.

“The poor thing,” June whispered as they carried him out.

BLOGGER'S OBSERVATIONS. First of all, hurray - I never thought I would see this piece in its entirety, though I hunted for it for years. It was paraphrased in the Levant bio A Talent for Genius, but I realize now that some key details were left out. I think I have an idea why.

Candice Bergen obviously could have had her choice of professions, given the lurid and loving way this piece is written. She spares no details about how macabre a presence Levant was at only 65, and yet, the unique charm and sweetness dwells deep even in a thoroughly wrecked and prematurely old man.

There were surprises in this piece, but not many.  No surprise that June Levant was a bit of a drill sergeant who probably arranged every detail of the last fifteen years of his life, but a rude surprise in that his death wasn't at all what I thought. Reading the bio A Talent for Genius, the authors seemed to be implying he lay down for a nice little nap, and then peacefully died. It wasn't that way at all, obviously. 

The details Bergen sets down are brutal - I won't repeat them, because I can't. He died with a look of horror on his face, like he had been struck by lightning. The great conductor Leonard Bernstein, another tortured artist who had a sort of running feud with Oscar, was wasting away from cancer and emphesema, when suddenly one day his whole body stiffened, and he shouted, "WHAT IS THIS?" - and died.

Death came calling, and instead of stealing away with him or bearing him up on gauzy wings, it shoved him hard and knocked him over. Both of them, really, were just bucked off. And yet, their deaths matched their tormented, unhealthy, driven lives, both men paradoxically attracting doggedly loyal, loving support right to the end.

I am pretty sure the description of his death in the biography was watered down for a reason. It was written with a lot of input from June Levant, and though most of it is vivid and detailed, there's a hard sort of shellac over some of it. A veil was drawn over that harrowing face, perhaps in deference to her. I don't mean to be too hard on Mrs. Oscar, who obviously had a formidable task in looking after her husband in his prematurely invalid state. But I also believe she had a role in pushing him out into the spotlight on late night TV and quiz shows, where he looked so gruesomely awful that his old friends could barely suppress gasps of horror when they saw him. It could be argued he wanted and needed the stimulation, but at that point he seemed hardly of this world any more: a somnambulist, a walking ghost. 

The authors use ghostly images to describe Levant again and again in the biography: "a spectral presence", "wraith", "shade", and so on. Candice Bergen lays it on very thick, perhaps TOO thick in places. And what killed him? He was a four-pack-a-day smoker and drank up to 40 cups of coffee a day, supposedly did not drink, but sucked up copious quantities of Demerol and any other painkillers he could lay hands on, finally just gobbling whatever pills his "friends" brought over when they visited, even birth control pills. It takes a toll. But like Bernstein, he also wore himself out from the inside. One day, the heart too frail for living just stopped, and he was unceremoniously kicked off the mad ride that had been his life. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

When is a car not a car? When it's a pillbug

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Schlörwagen in 1939

Schlörwagen from the front
The Schlörwagen (nicknamed "Göttinger Egg" or "Pillbug") was a prototype aerodynamic rear-engine passenger vehicle developed by Karl Schlör (1911–1997) and presented to the public in 1939.
Schlör, an engineer for Krauss Maffei of Munich, proposed an ultra-low drag coefficient body as early as 1936. Under Schlör's supervision at the AVA (an Aerodynamic testing institute in Göttingen) a model was built. Subsequent wind tunnel tests yielded an extraordinarily low drag coefficient of 0.113. For a functioning model, a Mercedes-Benz 170H chassis, one of their few rear-engine designs, was used. The aluminum body was built by the Ludewig Brothers of Essen. A year later it was unveiled to the public at the 1939 Berlin Auto Show. The project was shelved with the onset of World War II and mass production was never realized.

In a test drive with a production vehicle Mercedes 170H as a comparison model, the Schlörwagen tested about 135 km/h top speed by 20 km / h faster than the Mercedes and consumed 8 liters of gas per 100 kilometers between 20 and 40 percent less fuel than the reference vehicle. According to Karl Schlör, the vehicle could reach a speed of 146 km/h, but this is not considered proven. The car generated much publicity at the IAA 1939 in Berlin, but was perceived by the public as ugly.
In 1942, the Schlörwagen was equipped at the rear with a Russian propeller drive captured in World War II  and thus completed test drives in Göttingen. The prototype of the car was last detected after the end of the Second World War in August 1948 on the site of the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Göttingen. Schlörs' attempts to obtain the heavily damaged body from the British military administration failed. The whereabouts of the sole functioning model remains unknown.

I know this is a bit of a cheat, but my health has been pretty much crappy for several months now, with an intractible pain which gives me a new respect for those in intractible pain. But my fascination with bizarre automotive prototypes remains. Rather than try to paraphrase all that technical stuff, I've quoted Wiki (with some of the really boring stuff omitted). At first I wondered if the propeller drive thing was an attempt to make the pillbug fly. Details are vague, and the Wiki entry (corrected by me for its many grammatical glitches - meaning it was likely badly translated from German) is about all I can find. Failed prototypes tend to get squashed like bugs.
I think I know how they feel.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Oscar Levant: a spill of brilliance


Oscar Levant, Oscar Levant! I am too exhausted now from a truly gruesome sick-week  to go into a long prologue about who he was, and what he has meant to me over the years.  So I will just use a canned intro:

Oscar Levant (December 27, 1906 – August 14, 1972) was an American concert pianist, composer, music conductor, bestselling author, radio game show panelist and personality, television talk show host, comedian and actor. He was as famous for his mordant character and witticisms, on the radio and in movies and television, as for his music.

I just finished reading, or re-reading, a superb biography of Levant, A Talent for Genius: The Life and Times of Oscar Levant by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger. It's one of those "old friend" books that  I re-read again and again for a certain kind of comfort. Through a lot of deep research and vibrant writing, the authors capture the Byzantine complexity of a figure so contradictory and fraught with paradox that it's hard to know how they ever pulled it off. Second only to the Marion Meade bio of Dorothy Parker, What Fresh Hell is This? (which I usually re-read back-to-back with the Oscar one), it's the best biography I've encountered among the at-least-a-hundred-or-so I have read and reviewed.

Oscar was almost hopelessly fxx'ed up, to say it politely, with a host of psychiatric ills that included  bipolar disorder, OCD, runaway anxiety, intermittent paranoia, prescription drug addiction, and even a splash of benevolent narcissism. But there was so much more to him than that. Over the many years, his vast assortment of friends noticed and celebrated the little boy inside the man, the one who played hide-and-seek behind the great wall of his cynicism.  A lifelong friend eulogized him thus: "For behind the facade of the world's oldest enfant terrible  lurked the sweetest, warmest, most vulnerable man I've ever known. . . I loved him." Words such as "innocent" and "pure" crop up, confounding those who so completely bought his sardonic public persona. One doctor described him as an “extremely worthwhile human being”, a rather strange description which he set down in a formal medical report just as Levant was about to be thrown to the wolves of the psychiatric hospital system - again. He didn’t want his patient to be written off, forgotten about,  or completely devoured. 

Levant is mostly remembered as a razor wit, which I think was the very least of his almost frightening mass of talents. I refuse to quote even one of his "isms" here, because I am tired of them and no longer like to see them. He was, as writer and friend Christopher Isherwood described him, "completely unmasked at all times," and this unusually bare-faced quality startled, surprised, and (paradoxically) delighted people. He threw them completely off-guard and off-balance, but instead of being anxious or offended by it, they actually anticipated and enjoyed it. I can't think of another performer who did that, knew how, or could get away with it. 

Turner Classics coincidentally happened to show 5 or 6 of his movies recently, with an embalmed-looking Michael Feinstein introducing them. His introductions mostly consisted of long chains of Oscar-isms which we've all heard dozens of times before. Feinstein is the perennial "Gershwin source" because he early on managed to cultivate George's sister-in-law Lee, and was thus handed a career as fetch-and-carry boy to Gershwin's memory. He also ingratiated himself with Oscar's glamorous actress-wife June, a more complex figure in Oscar's life than anyone else seems to recognize.  It's never spelled out, but I can see the degree to which she acted as an enabler for Oscar's miasma of physical and mental miseries. As a child performer with a drunken Irish father, caretaking was  second nature to her, the kind of support which is a  knitting up and an unravelling at the same time.


After not seeing these movies for a few years, watching him perform, sometimes in a pianistic "blob" right in the middle of a third-rate movie, was absolutely hair-raising and almost unbelievable to see and hear. Those abnormally long, slender, piano-machine fingers flew so fast that most of the time they were a blur. His glittering precision inspired a critic to comment that the notes spilled "like brilliants from a broken necklace".  His close friend Vladimir Horowitz (a true buddy - they hit it off immediately, both melancholy Russian Jews  burdened with the gift of being musical prodigies) claimed that Levant was the superior pianist, even the “best”, meaning best in the world. 

When Oscar played, his face was usually masked, a “poker face”,  which is odd given his otherwise “unmasked” quality. Sometimes he tipped his head back, but that's about all. Only rarely did you see any pleasure on his face when he played. He gave it, but couldn't feel it.
But here I  want to insert a sentence that jumped out at me just this minute, when I randomly opened his bio: "While the Swopes' guests were gossiping or playing card games or croquet, someone would invariably be at the piano - George Gershwin, Deems Taylor, or Irving Berlin. Levant would take his place there as well, but only when no one asked. He would play only when he felt like it (see Dorothy Parker's perfectly accurate description of this, below), never on demand - but when he did he would play beautifully." This incredible Last Supper-like  gathering of musical giants makes me want to say, "Pass the salt, Jesus".

I wonder why this sudden return to Levant, except I don’t. I'm pretty sick right now, need surgery, am in almost perpetual  pain, and though I don't usually share it on this blog, I feel a certain desolation that I have hardly any readership left (though, to be sure, I cherish those few that I have), and pursue it now mainly as a sort of therapeutic journal to keep me busy and distracted.  It seems like synchronicity that those movies  came on TCM, all of which I've seen multiple times, just as I came back around to the Levant bio again. Maybe I need to see an example of suffering that is FAR worse than mine, both in frustrated potential in so many areas (despite his considerable fame), and utter, flat-out wretchedness, with both major mental illness (misdiagnosed, mismanaged, and blatantly mistreated) and studio-driven addiction that nearly killed him. All this with a jaw-droppingly neglected, serious and chronically painful heart condition: he was pumped full of Demerol, then pushed back out there so he could keep on performing.

His most energetic performance in The Band Wagon (a movie I just hate, though it's been called the best movie musical ever made) came just six weeks after he nearly died of a serious heart attack and refused to go to the hospital, because he was terrified the insurance companies would dump  him and he’d never work again. So he hunkered down at home with a hired nurse, barely recovering before he dove back into work under an unbreakable contract.

The appalling thing is, he was right - they WOULD have dumped him, maybe forever. He was the breadwinner in the family, so needed to work to raise his three musically-gifted daughters and send them to Julliard.  As with Garland, this was an engineered addiction that ran him into the ground and even cut his life short. He did not play a version of himself in The Band Wagon, that musical dog's breakfast – it was really the only time he didn’t.  In yet another strange Levantine twist, he based his character on his good friend Adolph Green, the man who wrote the script.

It was a heroic effort, and for those who didn't know the circumstances, he covered his pain as well as any broken man could. But he wasn't up to it and was quite literally risking his life. Though his wife June was loyal and no doubt loved him, she didn't stand in the way of any of this nonsense, and too  often even seemed to  encourage it. Indoctrinated as a child performer, her sense of "the show must go on" was amplified to the point of near-ruthlessness. Ironically, he told everyone on set that he had been in a mental hospital because it was "safer" than revealing his heart attack.  I am not making this up!

But his mental illness was his thing, his “shtick”, and though everyone knew he was telling the truth, they found it hilariously funny. I still don't understand this and wonder if he appealed to the worst qualities of schadenfreude and sadism in his audience. He brought this on himself, of course, jacking open his chest to display his broken heart for shockingly comic effect - but what can you do when you’re down and nearly dead from mental illness? You “sell” it, which is what he felt he had to do. 

He lived to be my age, and I love the way he died, taking a little nap upstairs while waiting for Candice Bergen to come over and interview him. It is the strangest but most beautiful death I ever heard of. But I have always felt that, one way or another, you die the way you live. I have a mental image of Oscar borne up on airy wings to Eternity, pianistic diamonds  in a glittering spill behind him. 

I can't say much more about all this, though I certainly could. Originally, I was going to do a comparison of Levant with Dorothy Parker. It's not the comparison that would be hard, but doing all the backstory on Parker, whom a lot of  people probably won't even know about. The parallels between them are surprisingly many. They sometimes crossed paths, had friends in common,  liked each other, and even wrote about each other with great admiration and affection. Oscar eulogized Dorothy:

". . . a tiny woman, fragile and helpless, with a wispy will of iron. She loved dogs, little children, President Kennedy, and lots and lots of liquor. Even her enemies were kind to her; she brought out the maternal in everyone. At her cruelest, her voice was most caressive - the inconstant nymph. She was one of my favorite people."

And Dorothy on Oscar, no less a perfect encapsulation of the man's dizzying complexity:

"Over the years, Oscar Levant's image - that horrible word - was of a cocky young Jew who made a luxurious living by saying mean things about his best friends and occasionally playing the piano for a minute if he happened to feel like it. . . They also spread the word around that he was sorry for himself. He isn't and he never was; he never went about with a begging bowl extended for the greasy coins of pity. He is, thank heaven, not humble. He has no need to be.

He has no meanness; and it is doubtful if he ever for a moment considered murder. . .

Well. This was a losing fight before it started, this striving to say things about Oscar Levant. He long ago said everything about everything - and what Oscar Levant has said,
stays said."

CODA. OK, there had to be one! I was fascinated to read that in his very first picture, John Garfield would play a character very closely based on his good friend Oscar Levant. This was in a movie called Four Daughters, and this clip might give you an idea of how well he pulled it off.  


Thursday, December 5, 2019

A FAUN is not a FAWN! (the cheapening of culture)

I just have to unload something here. I just watched a dreadful BBC music special about the Romantics, with some godawful English lady with two curtains of hair and big teeth, narrating with a constant, fatuous smile on her face. She began to talk about De-BEWW-sea, and when introducing his masterpiece Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune, she informed us in her sickly cheery voice that "this marvellous orchestral feast portrays the wonder and awe of a young deer as he slowly walks through a forest glen." 

A young deer. A fawn! The BBC cultural elite thinks a "faun" is Bambi, not some langorous half-drunk satyr wallowing with loose goddesses in an afternoon of  guiltless debauchery.

Even Wikipedia gets it right: "The goat man, more commonly affiliated with the Satyrs of Greek mythology or Fauns of Roman (emphasis mine), is a bipedal creature with the legs and tail of a goat and the head, arms and torso of a man and is often depicted with goat's horns and pointed ears. These creatures in turn borrowed their appearance from the god Pan of the Greek pantheon. They were a symbol of fertility, and their chieftain was Silenus, a minor deity of Greek mythology." 

Tom Robbins wrote an entire, gorgeous novel about Pan (Jitterbug Perfume, one of my all-time favorites), exploring the human sense of smell, its neural roots and erotic significance. Pan's no Bambi in this novel - he cavorts with the tattiest of has-been goddesses, and even in his invisible state gives off a sort of primal reek that sends his unwitting human victims into sexual frenzies. So powerful is his ponk that a magical perfume must be concocted to disguise it. The perfume is made from beet pollen, and here Robbins goes into a vegetable rhapsody unequalled in fiction:

“The beet is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent, not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious.

Slavic peoples get their physical characteristics from potatoes, their smoldering inquietude from radishes, their seriousness from beets.

The beet is the melancholy vegetable, the one most willing to suffer. You can't squeeze blood out of a turnip...

The beet is the murderer returned to the scene of the crime. The beet is what happens when the cherry finishes with the carrot. The beet is the ancient ancestor of the autumn moon, bearded, buried, all but fossilized; the dark green sails of the grounded moon-boat stitched with veins of primordial plasma; the kite string that once connected the moon to the Earth, now a muddy whisker drilling desperately for rubies.

The beet was Rasputin's favorite vegetable. You could see it in his eyes.”

(Back to me - I can't write that well!) The power of the beet and its reeking pollen (an odor which Robbins describes as "embarrassing") is the only thing that bests the animal stink of the goat. THAT goat, you know? That half-goat, unspeakably lashed to the torso of a man.  No, this is not  Bambi, folks, this is PAN, one of the most basic, fundamental, primal figures in all of ancient human lore, the pagan god of pagan gods, and not only that, the image most often associated with Satan.  And the BBC thinks he's a little forest darling with speckles on his rear!

The huge stir this piece caused when it debuted in Paris had little to do with the sensuality of the music, and everything to do with WHAT it portrayed: a lustful pagan goat-man in full rut. But oh, no, the music historians at the BBC, ALL of them, for surely the text must have been vetted by many, think that Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un Faune is about a baby deer, a FAWN! I don't know why I expected better from a British "music expert". But shit, I knew what a "faun" was when I was eight and my parents dragged me off to classical concerts.

I knew, not because I was some musical prodigy when I was a kiddie (far from it, I was the only dud in the lot), but because I was old enough and curious enough to read the backs of album covers (a lost source of musical education in this digital age). But the best classical music programming the BBC has to offer has no idea what Debussy's masterpiece is even about. Nobody caught it, nobody corrected it, nobody edited it out, and I am beginning to wonder with a sense of despair if I am the only person who even noticed it. It's the cheapening of culture, the shallowing-down of the brimming pools in Debussy's wild pagan landscape.

An outrageous, truly filthy old satyr lolling around in blatant sexual debauchery has somehow been collapsed down into a frolicking Disney character. "Some fun, huh, Bambi?" Dear God.

And the beet goes on! Another of Robbins' inspired passages, this time about the pollen of the beet which makes up the "bottom note" of Pan's perfume:

"If the waft that streams from a freshly opened hive is intimate to the point of embarrassment (ask any sensitive beekeeper), so it is with beet pollen. There is something personal about it, and something primeval. If there is a comparable odor, it is, indeed, the moldy inner sanctum of some fermenting, bursting hive; but beet pollen is honey squared, royal jelly cubed, nectar raised to the nth power; the intensified secretions of the Earth's apiarian gland, reeking of ancient bridal chambers and intimacies half as old as time."

OK. . . I will now stop writing. For the rest of my life.

(Post-post. I HAD to smell it, I had to try to find a sample of beet pollen to see if it really reeked in that intimate, embarrassing way. And I couldn't. BUT - I had a certain house plant, until it died, with thick, dark green, spiky leaves which had a purplish down on their surface. It grew away untended, then suddenly the thing bloomed, and I could tell it had bloomed when I walked into the room: the tiny, dandelion-shaped, bright orange flowers stank of locker room, of sweat, and of all the intimate things Robbins talks about. It's possible the purple passion plant is somehow related to the beet, and its fat, aggressive leaves look similar. This is probably as close as I will get to that smell. And I do wonder, in considerable despair, if anyone now on earth can equal or surpass the lush cascading poetry of Robbins' prose.)

POST-POST-"whatever". As I try to dig up more information on beet pollen, I am finding absolutely NOTHING specific to that plant. It's as if it doesn't flower, which confuses me. All I can come up with is BEE pollen, which is obviously not what I want. For some reason, lupines came up too - the elegant, long-stemmed, bell-flowered plant I plucked on a walk around the lagoon in the summer. It's also known as foxglove, from which the heart drug digitalis is extracted. It's one of the oldest and most effective of  folk remedies. But why is lupinus perennis the only image I can come up with? Is Robbins having us on by inventing a substance just to tease us? 

Persistence pays off. Or, sort of. I  finally found SOMETHING about beet flowers, but it pertained to sugar beets, those hard, lumpy, turnip-like things which were processed in a plant in my home town, emitting a scorchy smell of burnt sugar on hot summer days. This ISN'T the beet Robbins write about, which, incredibly, does not flower (how can you have a plant that doesn't flower?). Small, shrivelled, yellowish petals cling to a gnarly-looking stalk, and I have no idea what they smell like. But the name! The name makes this entire meandering enterprise worthwhile (and didn't we start with "faun vs. fawn"?): 

It's BETA VULGARIS. If Robbins didn't find this name while researching his sensuous tour de force, then he should have.