Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The evidence is here: Why Oscar Levant Wasn't Just a Crazy Person

Oh yes. Do you know why all this is happening? Three guesses. Because I can only cure one obsession by taking on another.

And why did I need to cure my obsession with Harold Lloyd? Three guesses. Absolutely no one wanted to publish my novel about him (The Glass Character),and my heart broke. It shattered. No matter how much I am bombarded with imperatives to epublish it, I can't buy it, I don't think I'd sell more than a couple dozen copies, if that. Just more discouragement. I have no idea how to promote it, and surely the market is flooded by now. As far as I know, there are no editorial standards for ebooks, similar to the paper self-published books I've seen (which so far have all been dreadful, just screaming for an editor). Around here, traditional publishers are so freaked out by the new forms that they won't go near you, so you will be basically stuck at that level. My paper books sold poorly enough, and I am not convinced sending it out into the ether would net me more than a few hundred at most. I could go on, but I won't.

Therefore the only way I can avoid major depression is to take up my next obsession, which I will NOT NOT NOT write a book about. I have promised myself, and I will stick to it.

Anyway, Oscar Levant, genius, creative polymath, crazy as a hoot owl (speaking of birds), and father of three beautiful daughters - wait! Could this be right?

Oscar Levant had a whole 'nother life besides the grumbling, Buster-Keaton-faced, piano-dextrous sidekick in innumerable movies. He was a chick magnet. I can't find a good photo of his first wife, but I know she was gorgeous in the plucked-eyebrow way women were back then (showbiz women, anyway). Once they split, he pursued singer/actress June Gale with obsessiveness and fervor, and it worked.

I get the feeling June Gale was one of these glamorous women who was tough as nails inside, and it was a good thing because she would gradually evolve into her husband's caregiver. Oscar would fall apart and drag himself up again over and over, until he took final refuge in his bed. I wonder if his wife had to go up to his bedroom 30 or 40 times a day to supply with him with coffee.

There is evidence, slim but fascinating, of this other life, a much happier one: dare I say it, almost normal? I only found a few photos of June Gale, but she is a knockout's knockout, dazzling even by Hollywood standards. Oscar wasn't exactly anyone's idea of handsome, but he had a "something", no one could figure out exactly what it was, some odd kind of charisma or tidal force that dragged people into his sphere of influence and wouldn't let them go.

He would come up to women and drape his arm around them and murmur to them in that distinctive low tough-guy voice, and they'd melt. These weren't necessarily affairs, but rather Levant experiments to see how far he could get: and he often got pretty far.

Anyway, on to his daughters. I found only a couple of poses, one in which Oscar receives a kiss from his eldest daughter with visible affection while holding the youngest rather awkwardly on his knee. Obviously happy, he DOES look handsome here. Fathers didn't get down on the floor then to play Lego or take their kids to the park in a stroller because such things didn't yet exist, but there is no doubt Oscar loved these girls and gave them all he had, all that his crippled, fragile, crushed but valiant heart could give them.

Oh, and this picture of the three girls - they all have the full lips and sleepy-lidded, haunting Levant eyes, and to be honest it looks a lot better on them. He has stamped them all with his crazy DNA, and one wonders what happened to them (though the biography claims they all went on to solid careers in different fields), whether they struggled the way he did to stay upright, to stem the force of his tidal despair.

So Oscar wasn't really alone, not at all, he had a beautiful and devoted family (with June fighting like a tiger to keep him out of the hideous cuckoo's- nest sanitariums of the day), but it didn't really save him. I find this incredibly sad. What would have saved him? I'm not sure. His meeting George Gershwin was the best and worst thing that ever happened to him: the bio quotes someone-or-other saying, "What makes you, unmakes you." Even after Gershwin's death at 38, Levant would forever walk in his shadow.

(Looking up something else, I found this little splash of delight about his disastrous purchase of a "summer house", in which he functioned about as well as Woody Allen on a game farm):

The transition to country gentleman was not an easy one. The quiet, the sound of crickets, the animals rustling through the underbrush at night were a torment to Levant. The first day in their new house, he went out to take his walk, as was his custom in the city. Almost as soon as he stepped out of doors he saw two black snakes undulating along a rock. Certain they were poisonous, he scuttled back into the house, where he remained for three days.

The next time he emerged, the sight of a hedgehog terrified him. Insects gave him anxiety attacks. Even birds, with their restless fluttering, upset him. Levant, his nerves already unraveling, found that the most anxiety-producing creature in all the woods was the hummingbird.

'The hummingbird is crazy,' he confided to the journalist Maurice Zolotow. 'I make that statement flatly. The hummingbird is psychotic. If there were psychiatry for birds, they would have to analyze every hummingbird.'


Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book
    It took me years to write, will you take a look