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 cafĂ© 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.