“Harold and Maude” Revisited

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I bought myself a present this week. One that I’ve been waiting for most of my life. That’s not hyperbole. After seeing Harold and Maude in the early 1970s, I was eager to acquire the original soundtrack album, only to find one had not been released. Now, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Hal Ashby’s black comedy, it has just been issued for the first time.

Listening to Cat Stevens’ iconic songs I am transported back in time. “I’d left my happy home, to see what I could find out, I left my folk and friends to clear my mind out…” I had recently moved to San Francisco, trying to find myself. I’ve loved this film since I first saw it (at the Clay Theatre?). I was excited to be away from family and friends, living in a real city, embracing my new identity (and behavior) as a gay man.

It now seems significant that this film was developed in the late 1960s at the height of the counter-culture, San Francisco being one of the epicenters of that movement. I told myself I’d moved to San Francisco because of the strong coffee and foreign/independent films, but it was — I later realized —  really to come out as a gay man. Little did I know that this quirky cult classic was written by a gay man who later established the Colin Higgins Foundation, to support LGBTQ youth, in San Francisco. 1971 seems early for a young actor, screenwriter and ultimately director to be out in Hollywood. How, I wondered, did his gay identity inform this “queer” take on upending traditional mores? And how did someone so young develop his perspective about death? Was it helpful when he was facing his own mortality, dying from AIDS at 47? The film became a  touchstone for many during the pandemic.

In the many viewings over the years, I largely focused on its bay area filming locations, including the ruins of Sutro Baths, the Golden Gate National Cemetery, the Dumbarton Bridge. They provide an inadvertent snapshot of what the bay area looked like when I first arrived. One friend was convinced he knew where Harold’s car had gone off the cliff, that it was still there, but I never actually saw it. And I recently learned that the Hillsborough mansion where Harold lives with his mother was near the home of a dear friend. I’d been driving by it unknowingly for years.  

While most of the songs, like “I Think I See The Light,” and “I Wish, I Wish”  (“I wish I knew, I wish I knew / what makes me me, what makes you you…”) had been featured on the albums Mona Bone Jakon and Tea For The Tillerman, a couple were not. “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out” (“…And if you want to be you, be you / ‘Cause there’s a million things to do / You know that there are…”) was written specifically for the film. As was “Don’t be shy, just let your feelings roll on by / Don’t wear fear or nobody will know you’re there / Just lift your head, and let your feelings out instead /And don’t be shy, just let your feelings roll on by…” As a sheltered, 20-something man trying to find his place in the world, I related to Harold.

I’m not alone. Mentioning my admiration to disparate friends, many shared their number of viewings. One friend was excited to tell me that as a twelve-year-old girl, she’d “met Bud Cort on a yacht”. As one  — apparently — does in Los Angeles. She went on to say he was very nice and “gay as a goose.” I hadn’t known.

Harold (Bud Cort) is 19-year-old boy, rich and obsessed with death. He attempts to get a reaction from his mother (Vivian Pickles) by staging a series of mock suicides, to no avail. She seems primarily concerned with making and cancelling appointments with “René,”  her hair stylist. He also enjoys attending strangers’ funerals, where he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon) a 79-year-old free spirit. The two unlikely characters start becoming increasingly intimate. Earth-mother Maude demonstrates a different way of being in the world: while Harold seems to view life as merely an inconvenient and trivial path towards death, Maude plumbs as much meaning as possible from life. Minnah Stein states it succinctly at Film-Cred.com:  “Harold and Maude are a metaphor for the life cycle. Harold is life obsessed with death and Maude is death obsessed with life.”

When initially released, it was deemed “tasteless” by some critics, including Vincent Canby’s pan in the New York Times (Ruth Gordon even wrote him to complain). I concur with the Film Quarterly critic who said, “Harold and Maude is one of the best movies to come out of Hollywood in years. It is a love story, a sentimental black comedy, a ludicrous tear-jerker, a grisly social satire.”

One element that I missed on initial viewings was Maude’s backstory. In one scene she reminisces about her youth, “When I was a little girl I was taken to the palace in Vienna, to a garden party. I can still see the sunshine, the parasols, and the flashing uniforms of the young officers. I thought then I would marry a soldier…” She grows quiet. “But that was all… before…” She turns away and her eyes have filled with tears.

Later, watching the sunset at the beach together: “It’s sinking, Harold. Going over the horizon — where we are all going to go.” As Maude is talking and looking out to sea, Harold looks down and sees a number tattooed on her forearm. Maude doesn’t notice but Harold is visibly shocked. The unspoken indication of her status as a survivor of the Holocaust, makes her an even more complicated, and sympathetic, character. Maude continues, “Dreyfus once wrote that on Devil’s Island he would see the most glorious birds. Many years later in Brittany he realized they had only been sea gulls.” She smiles and looks out to sea. “To me they will always be — glorious birds.” I wonder how many audience members (or even Harold) recognize this passing reference to Jewish French army captain Alfred Dreyfus, convicted of treason for allegedly selling military secrets to the Germans in 1894, igniting a huge political crisis, much of it fueled by anti-Semitism, even after he was later proven innocent.

But my real reason for revisiting this counter-cultural classic now is its connection to death.  For those who haven’t seen this black comedy, there will be spoilers, so drop everything and go watch it. Viewing the film for the umpteenth time, I am reminded of how well it holds up.

After a naked Harold and Maude are seen lying under bed sheets, instead of a morning-after cigarette, Harold blows a bubble. Emma Madin on BBC.com suggests that he is “blowing out life into the air, instead of taking ash into his lungs. He seems to have found the answer to the question “What is the point of living?” The point of living, I surmised by the film’s end, is partly to accept death. To see it as an essential and beautiful and inevitable machine that regenerates more life. It never ceases. If anything, it encourages us to go and love some more.”

I was surprised at all the foreshadowing I’d forgotten or, more likely, missed.

  • In their very first conversation Maude says: “…I’ll be eighty next week. A good time to move on, don’t you think?…I mean, seventy-five is too early, but at eighty-five, well, you’re just marking time and you may as well look over the horizon.”
  • Soon thereafter, at another funeral, she says “… They’re such fun, aren’t they? It’s all change. All revolving. Burials and births. The end to the beginning and the beginning to the end — the great circle of life…”
  • And a little later, as Harold interrogates Maude’s penchant for appropriating other people’s cars. “What owners, Harold? We don’t own anything. It’s a transitory world. We come on the earth with nothing, and we go out with nothing, so isn’t “ownership” a little absurd?”
  • As they regard Glaucus’ ice sculpture, Harold notice that the ice is melting. “Yes” Maude agrees, “That’s one of the drawbacks of the medium.”
  • “And this too shall pass away.” Well, the wise man was right — if you remember that, you can’t help but live life fully.
  • Sitting in a field of flowers, Maude muses, “They grow and bloom, and fade, and die, and some change into something else. Ah, life!… I should like to change into a sunflower most of all…”
  • When Harold asks why she took the photographs out of their frames, Maude replies “They mocked me. They were representations of people I dearly loved yet they knew these people were gradually fading from me, and that in time all I would have left would be vague feelings – but sharp photographs! So I tossed them out. My memory fades, I know. But I prefer pictures made by me with feeling, and not by Kodak with silver nitrate.”

Maude’s seeming nattering slowly starts to sink in as her profound perspective pervades the film, and Harold’s psyche.  After Harold confesses to his first suicidal prank, ending with, “I decided then I enjoyed being dead, Maude responds, “Yes. I understand. A lot of people enjoy being dead. But they are not dead really. They’re just backing away from life. They’re players – but they sit on the bench. The game goes on before them. At any moment they can join in. Reach out! Take a chance! Get hurt maybe. But play as well as you can. Go team, go! Give me an “L.” Give me an “I.”  Give me a “V.” Give me an “E.” LIVE! Otherwise, you’ll have nothing to talk about in the locker room.”

When Harold surprises her for her 80th birthday and proposes marriage. Maude tells him:  “Oh, I am happy, Harold. Ecstatically happy. I couldn’t imagine a lovelier farewell. Here is an early, unacknowledged, example of a completed life, or rational old age suicide. Harold does everything he can to save his elderly lover, but to no avail. However, Maude has left him with the greatest gift: a newfound love for life.

HAROLD: Farewell?

MAUDE: Why yes. It’s my eightieth birthday.

HAROLD: But you’re not going anywhere, are you?

MAUDE: Oh yes, dear. I took the pills an hour ago. I should be gone by midnight.

In the ambulance and then the hospital, Maude chides Harold.

MAUDE: Oh, Harold! What a fuss this is. So unnecessary.

HAROLD: Maude, please. Don’t die. I couldn’t bear it. Please, don’t die.

MAUDE: But, Harold, we begin to die as soon as we are born. What is so strange about death? It’s no surprise. It’s part of life. It’s change.

HAROLD: But why now?

MAUDE: I thought eighty was a good round number.

HAROLD: Please, don’t you realize? She is dying.

MAUDE: Well, not dying, actually. I’m changing. You know, like from winter to spring. Of

course, it is a big step to take.

Throughout the film, we now realize, Maude has been articulating what is referred to as a “completed life,” “a life well lived,” or “old age rational suicide.” Harold wasn’t really listening, and we, the audience, weren’t taking her seriously. Now, as I find myself much closer to Maude’s age than to Harold’s, I am beginning to understand. The simple profundity of her last words are finally, perhaps for the first time, heard:

MAUDE: Farewell, Harold. It’s been all such fun.

Ring Cycle

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“Show us the rings,” we begged our grandmother. I see Baba now, sitting regally on her sofa, her two adoring grandsons at her feet. Baba was the most important person in my life. She was my Auntie Mame, showing me a world outside my beige Buena Park suburban existence. She took me to parties, cooked me French delicacies, and introduced me to opera. She dressed stylishly, had red hair, and spoke with a thick French accent. When she took us – me and my younger brother, John – to the movies, which she did frequently, she sometimes sang along. Annoying as that was, it made sense, because she had been a famous Parisian opera singer, and now gave singing lessons and judged competitions. She reluctantly obliged us in this oft-repeated scenario.

The two massive art deco rings were not family heirlooms or gifts from admirers.  She’d had them made for herself in Paris in the 1920s, one more symbol of her independence. Sometimes she let us hold them, but only if we’d just washed our hands. I examined the two rows of rubies framing a row of tiny diamonds, which Baba dismissively referred to as “chips”.

“And when I die, this will be yours, little Jimmy,” she often proclaimed. I didn’t really pay attention. I couldn’t fathom a time when Baba wouldn’t be here. “And this one will be yours, she said holding a bague with small diamonds and sapphires under my brother’s nose.

The jewelry, with real gemstones, that she took for granted fueled my fantasies. The only jewels I knew were at Disneyland: brought by the seven dwarves from the mine in the scary Snow White ride, spilling out a sunken treasure chest on the submarine ride, or hidden amongst the Pirates of the Caribbean’s loot in a secret cave. Baba’s jewelry was different. It was real, not like the matching necklace, brooch, and earring sets Dad helped us pick out for Mom’s birthday or Mother’s day.  Mom claimed to be delighted by the costume jewelry, but Baba was disdainful of anything but the real thing. She was disdainful of many things over the years, including my long hair, poorly polished shoes, even the tiny tab on my Levi’s jeans. I didn’t visit often enough or stay long enough or… Though I knew she loved me deeply, sometimes it felt that I could do nothing right.

Decades passed. My then partner Doug and I decided to live in Paris for a year. When I went to say goodbye to Baba in summer 1982, she acted as if she’d never see me again. Was she being, as usual, overly dramatic? Didn’t she realize she was the reason I wanted to live in Paris? Writing as often as possible, I hoped she was living vicariously as I recounted our Parisian adventures. It didn’t dawn on me that she wasn’t writing back.

One afternoon, a letter arrived from my mother mentioning that Baba had died on April 6, 1983. My beloved Baba had been dead for a week and I hadn’t even known it. No one had thought to call me or send a telegram. Not that there was anything I could do, but after all, I was still part of this family, even if I was thousands of miles away. Wasn’t I? I was immediately filled with anger. Rage at my mother and brother who had not forewarned me of Baba’s encroaching cancer. Sure, they’d said she was not doing too well, but I certainly wasn’t prepared for this. For days I was devastated, distraught, depressed. 

That August I returned to San Francisco for a job. Though I was disappointed to miss my sister-in-law, Kitty Ann’s, impending visit, Doug promised to show her a good time. During her stay, Kitty Ann told Doug a story, which he in turn relayed to me.

One afternoon Kitty Ann and John had been wandering through a Seattle shopping center, near where my mother lived. In a jewelry shop window, Kitty Ann noticed a pair of unusual rings, immediately recognizing them as Baba’s. Kitty Ann urged John in to the shop where he learned that my mother had placed them there on consignment. When John called Mom for an explanation, she confessed she had none, but he got her to agree to retrieve the rings from the store. Apparently my mother and brother also agreed not to tell me.

As soon as Doug relayed the story, I called my brother to ask about the status of the rings. He was surprised and annoyed that Kitty Ann had brought it up. I told him I was glad to know about what was going on. He said he’d talked to Mom and it was all taken care of.

“What,” I wanted to know, “does that mean?”

“They’re in a safe deposit box. Why are you making such a big deal out of it?”

“Don’t you want your ring?”
“I don’t really care that much.”

“Well, I want mine.”

“That’s between you and Mom. I wouldn’t bring it up right now. I’ve spoken to her about it and it seems to be under control.”

“Okay,” I reluctantly acquiesced.

The more I reflected the more frustrated I became. Baba had told me repeatedly the ring would be mine. My mother had no right to keep it from me. I was convinced she was trying to torment me, or controlling my posthumous relationship with my grandmother. The ring had become a symbol of the long-festering problems with my mother.

In 1985 Mom made a rare visit to San Francisco. We had stopped at Ghirardelli Square where I was blissfully enjoying my hot fudge sundae when I heard her ask, “Do you still want Baba’s ring?”

Caught off guard, I suspected a trap. I took another spoonful and didn’t say anything for a minute. “Yes, why do you ask?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I was thinking of having it reworked into something I might wear but I was wondering if you still wanted it.”

“Yes, I do,” I said cautiously.

“Okay, I just wanted to know.”

So I waited.

When John and Kitty Ann came to visit several weeks later, I naively hoped Mom might have given them the ring to bring to me. Not a word. I was beginning to feel manipulated again. When I spoke to John about it, he suggested writing Mom a note to ask her. A direct approach seemed a good idea.

In my carefully worded letter I said that I had been surprised by her question and wondered what her intentions were. I felt better having been straightforward as I waited patiently. Now the ball was in her court.

I never received a response.

Many months later the phone rang. My stomach tightened when I heard my mother’s voice.

“Hello, Mom.” I tried to be cheerful. We made small talk for some time. Idle chat that allowed us to pretend that there was a real relationship happening. Finally, after over twenty minutes of this pleasantly empty repartée, I summoned my courage and – knowing I was asking for trouble – said, “Did you get my letter?”

“Your letter.” She paused. “Oh, yes I did.”

“I didn’t know whether you’d received it since I didn’t get a reply.”

“Well I didn’t know how to respond.”

“So you didn’t respond at all.”

“I guess not.”

“Well, I wrote the letter and as directly as possible requested a reply. I’m disappointed I didn’t hear from you.” I was adopting one of her old tactics. Her “Jimmy, I’m very disappointed in you Jimmy,” had always struck me to the quick.

“I’m not sure why this has turned into such a big issue.”

“Neither do I, but it has, and I’d like to deal with it.”

“Okay, let’s deal with it.”

I could practically hear her putting on boxing gloves. Okay, mine were already on.

“I guess I don’t understand why, knowing that I want Baba’s ring and knowing she wanted me to have it, you can’t give it to me.”

“Why do you want it?”

“I don’t know. I just want a memento of my grandmother.”

“What are you going to do with it?”

“I’m not going to do anything with it. I just want it.”

“Well you wanted her posters and I gave you those. And you wanted the sheet music and I gave you that. Who’s to say that if I were to give you the ring, you wouldn’t want something else?”

“Well, maybe you’re right. But I can honestly say that at this point, I don’t think so. I have always wanted the ring. I have always said I wanted the ring. I appreciated getting the posters. I spent a lot of money getting them restored and framed and they’re hanging up and I’m proud of them.”

“Good. I’m glad.”

“So what do you want me to do or say? I feel like you’re dangling this ring before me like a carrot. As if it’s the only thing to keep power and control over me. But it’s backfiring. I don’t trust you and I don’t want to have anything to do with you if I can’t trust you.”

“And I can only prove my trust by giving you the ring? I feel like I’m having to buy your love.” 

“Don’t flatter yourself. I may be many things, but I’m not a whore. My love is not for sale. I give it to those I choose to, but it can’t be bought. So don’t insult me.”

“Well, don’t get all worked up.”

“Don’t get all worked up? It’s damn frustrating trying to please you.”

“I feel the same way.”

“Why don’t you give me the ring?”

“How would I get it to you?”

“You could mail it,” I suggested, realizing that we were going around in circles.

“It might get lost in the mail.”

“If you wanted to, we could figure out a way.”

“If I gave you your ring, I’d have to give John his and he’d give it to Kitty Ann and one thing Baba was adamant about was that she didn’t want it to go out of the family.”

“But you were willing to sell it.”

“Well, I wasn’t thinking straight. I was still very upset at my mother’s death.”

“I see.”

“You keep thinking of these excuses,” I continued. “If you wanted to give it to me, you could. You have all these hoops for me to jump through to prove my love, or my worthiness, or something to get this ring. I’m tired of going around and around about it.”

“Me too. Let’s just drop it.”

“Why not drop it in my lap.” I thought I was clever. “Why don’t you go to see a therapist about why you can’t give it to me. I’d just like to understand.”

“Why don’t you write down our conversation, and why you want it, and why I should give it to you, and maybe that would influence my decision.”

Okay, I thought. I’ll jump through yet another set of hoops. “Will you follow my suggestion about seeing someone?”

“I’ll think about it.” There were a few moments of uncharacteristic silence. “I have an offer,” she proposed. “Why don’t you come up for a weekend, we’ll see a counselor together, work on our relationship, improve our communication, and at the end of the weekend I might give you the ring.”

“You’ve got to be kidding!” I exploded. “I refuse to be manipulated by you to that extent. Why don’t you go and figure out why you can’t give it to me and then we’ll discuss the possibility of me coming up.”

“And in the meantime you’ll write down what the ring has come to symbolize and why you want it.”

“Yes, and you’ll make an appointment to see someone.”

“Well…,” she hesitated.

“Forget it. Let’s just not have anything to do with one another. I’m not interested in a relationship with someone I can’t trust.”

“Okay, to hell with you,” my mother said.

“Wait a second. I don’t think either of us want that. Let’s back up a second. What happened to the place where you went to get help?”

“I don’t need to figure out why I don’t want to give it to you. I don’t want you to have it! There!”

“Well, that’s a step toward honesty. Why not, do you think?”

“Oh god. I don’t know, Jimmy.” By now I could hear her sobbing. “Why can’t everything just be okay between us?”

Though by now she was getting to me — and she knew it — I refused to be taken in by her tears.

“I’d like that too. That’s what I’m working toward. In my therapy and in my life. But it’s not easy.”

“It sure isn’t. Well, I’ll think about it.”

“Okay, let’s think about it.” I was emotionally drained by the time I hung up. Why did we put ourselves through this every time we spoke? What was the payoff?

So some months later I flew to Seattle for a weekend of what I sarcastically called “couples counseling.” I had allowed Mom to choose the therapist, one with whom she’d been working for some years, in hopes she would be more comfortable with someone familiar. I even agreed to pay for our sessions, trusting that my insurance would cover the costs. To make the most of my short time in the area, we scheduled a two-hour session on Saturday, and another double session on Sunday.

In the therapist’s office Mom immediately commandeered the situation. She placed a box of tissue on a nearby table. “This will come in handy,” she predicted. Then she pulled a photograph of her mother from her purse, setting it in a place where Baba could oversee the proceedings. “I just know she’ll come up in conversation,” Mom announced, “so I thought I’d bring her out now.” Despite Baba’s efforts to ameliorate my relationship with Mom, the relations between the three of us had often been fraught. I hoped that the next thing pulled from her purse would be the ring, but no.

The four hours ended up being an exercise in frustration and futility. As we approached the last hour on Sunday my mother exclaimed, “It’s just not worth it.” I translated this to mean, “You’re just not worth it.” I felt that I had been rejected. There seemed nothing more to do or say.

I was surprised when the therapist allowed my mother to continue beyond the session’s time limit. I had never seen that happen. I was maddened by what I saw as my mother’s manipulation and the therapist’s inability to maintain boundaries. I was also angry that after all my efforts I was leaving without the ring.

I moved on. For the next two decades I had as little to do with my mother as possible. Over the years brother reported, intermittently, on her situation. I wished her well, but couldn’t cope with her toxicity.

One day John called to say that she had cancer, which had been worsening. If I wanted to see her I should do it sooner rather than later. I had been awaiting this call for years. I immediately called Mom, and quickly made plans to visit. My boyfriend, Allen, who had never met my mom, had heard my many horror stories. We flew up and John drove us to north Seattle, where she lived. After she ushered the three of us into her cluttered apartment, she scurried off.

“I have something for you,” my mother reentered the room. She was holding a book and some papers as she walked toward where I was seated on the end of the couch. I didn’t have time to wonder what it might be when suddenly I felt something hard hit my thigh, then heard it thud onto the carpet. It appeared as if she’d thrown it at me or perhaps it had accidentally slid off the pile. I reached down, picked it up, and brought the object into my range of vision. I recognized it instantly. Inside a miniscule zip-lock bag was my grandmother’s ring.

I looked up at my mother.

“I always intended to give it to you,” she said. “I just didn’t want to mail it.”         

I didn’t trust myself to respond so I said nothing.

“Like a joke,” John quipped from across the room, “it’s all in the delivery.”

I looked down at the ring and back up at my mother. “Thank you.”

There was no apology from her, no further appreciation from me. It was as if the unacknowledged quarter-century dispute had never existed.

 “While I’m up,” Mom said to my brother, “do you want yours, John?’

“That’s okay,” he said. I couldn’t quite comprehend his disinterest while I was so desirous.

“Oh, and I have been saving this for you,” she continued, handing me a large-print edition of an Audrey Hepburn biography, as if the two gifts were of equal importance. I thanked her for her thoughtfulness, even though I was pretty sure I’d already read it. She showed me photocopies of various articles or cartoons that had reminded her of me. She seemed to have been collecting these offerings for some time.

The conversation continued around me but I felt disoriented, lost in my thoughts. I opened the plastic bag, took out the ring, and slipped it onto my little figurer. A surge of sadness started to sweep through me. I thought of how many years had gone since Baba had died and before her ring had finally come to me. Looking at the ring on my finger, I recognized that my relationship with my mother had finally shifted. Something had begun to thaw. A chunk of an iceberg had broken off, and I was holding it up to the light.

I quickly removed the ring. This wasn’t the time or place to deal with my strong emotions I slipped it back into its bag and put it in my pocket. It was time to leave for the restaurant where John had made lunch reservations. We got lost on the way, but everyone laughed good-naturedly until we eventually arrived.

Later I sensed that my mother hadn’t actually handed the ring to me. Baba’s spirit, I believed, had intervened to bestow it, sending it sailing across the room to land at my feet. 

When my mother died, some months later, it was in her apartment, surrounded by her beloved tchatchkes. Reportedly she listened to recordings of her mother singing, recordings I had made for her, lifting her arms as if conducting a celestial chorus. I was surprised I never shed a tear. I was filled with gratitude she had as she wished, peacefully and painlessly at home.

Friends were impressed when I showed them my grandmother’s ring. Someone suggested it might be valuable and recommended that I take it to be appraised. I learned about a free appraisal clinic offered by Bonham & Butterfield every month. The first Monday morning in February I walked down the hill to the auction house with the ring in my pocket. When I turned the corner I saw that there was already a long line of hopefuls waiting for the doors to open. It reminded me of the time Allen and I had stood in a similar line in the hopes of appearing on Antiques Roadshow television program. Allen brought several objects from his “Ferdinand the Bull” collection and suggested I bring two of Baba’s smaller posters. The point, he explained, was not really the value but getting ourselves onto the program.

Standing in line by myself this time at Butterfield’s I saw that people had brought a similar assortment of treasures. With their family heirlooms or flea market finds — vases, paintings, wagons of tchotchkes – everyone was there in hopes of learning they had found a fortune. People around me were kibitzing merrily, while I remained silent, contemplating the possible value of my newly acquired ring. Perhaps it would be worth thousands and I could buy a house, or – I caught myself before my fantasies ran too wild.

Finally the doors opened and the line started moving, slowly. When my turn came I was ushered into a small room where a middle-aged woman conducted the jewelry appraisals. I presented her with the ring and held my breath. She studied it carefully with her loop, noting that there was no craftsman’s mark and that none of the small stones were particularly distinctive.  That sounded right, Baba had referred to them as chips. Then the appraiser said it was worth “forty six hundred dollars.” At least that’s what I thought I heard. I was disappointed: $4600 was considerably less than I’d anticipated. Then I realized what she’d actually said was “four to six hundred dollars.”

That’s all? I could scarcely contain my shock as I picked up the ring and put it back in my pocket. The appraiser smiled sympathetically before beckoning to the next hopeful.

As I exited the room, I laughed. At least now I wouldn’t have to worry about insuring it, or even consider the possibility of selling it. Not that I would ever have been able to bring myself to part with such an important symbol, but if it had been worth thousands I might have been tempted. Even in my disappointment I was grateful that I wouldn’t have to evaluate the ring’s sentimental versus its monetary value.

I created an altar of family heirlooms, and Baba’s ring became its centerpiece. I showed it to friends and mostly ignored it.

One day Allen asked about it. When I went to look for it in its usual place it wasn’t there. Had I put it someplace “special”? Had someone taken it? But who, when? It didn’t seem likely.

I was proud of myself for not having a major meltdown. I was upset, curious and disappointed, but I didn’t rage and cry and wail as I might have. It was gone.

Some weeks later, during an acupuncture treatment, I was lying on the table wearing nothing but my boxer shorts when I felt the presence of my grandmother. It wasn’t the first time she’d “visited,” so I took it in stride. After an initial “conversation,” I asked about the ring. “I took it back,” she said. “It was needed elsewhere.”  However cryptic the response, somehow that’s all I needed to know. The ring had come full circle.

“Lithp”

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What grade was I in when it was determined that my lisp was so pronounced I was required to visit the school’s speech therapist? This person was likely not dedicated to any individual school, but traveled around the district. All I remember was feeling mortified. Everyone knew what a lisp represented. Only sissies lisped. I already “ran like a girl,” “held my books like a girl,” was studious and not sportif. My speech impediment was just one more marker in the mix.

So, with humiliation, shame, and fear, I traipsed to my appointment. I don’t even remember the gender of the practitioner, but I was given some simple tests before being offered exercises to alleviate this dread condition. When I returned (the following month?)) the therapist spoke to me briefly before declaring that my stutter seemed to be much better. Stutter? I’d never stuttered. I said nothing and departed victorious. Obviously, this person was so overwhelmed they couldn’t keep track of kids’ presenting problems and I escaped further investigation.

Was this before or after my “star turn” in a grammar school play? I certainly wasn’t cast as Julius Caesar for my acting ability, perhaps because I was tall. Was Sylvia Chesla the playwright? Were Jim Holcolm and Cari Lyn Hughes in the cast? As Caesar is striding into the senate, he is warned “Beware the Ides of March!” My one line: “Begone foolish soothsayer!” Suffice it to say, it was a challenge to wrap my tongue and teeth around the twister. I might as well have been trying to make my way through “She sells seashells by the seashore.” After many failed attempts, I pleaded my case, “Can’t I just say ‘begone foolish fortune teller’ instead?” No, apparently the playwright didn’t want any changes suggested by the pre-teen cast. So once more, humiliation and shame.

When I inherited a large reel-to-reel tape recorder from my grandfather and first heard my voice, I was horrified. That wasn’t how I sounded, was it? There it was again, the dreaded lisp.

By the time the next-door neighbors’ dad derogatorily referred to someone as “light in the loafers,” I knew instinctively he meant homosexual. Were my wrists limp, was that why I couldn’t play ball with the boys? At one point I was assured mine was only a “sibilant S”. What was the difference? Eventually I learned not to care.

Watching David Thorpe’s 2015 documentary Do I Sound Gay? I was somewhat validated to watch his “personal journey to unpack layers of cultural baggage concerning sexuality, identity, and self-esteem.” Now, after years of singing and speaking in public, I can laugh at myself.

Just don’t ask me to say “Begone foolish soothsayer” in your play.


Reader

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If I were forced to choose one single identity, it might well be that of reader.

When I was young, I read voraciously. I recall stacks of books from the library, the Oz books, Hardy boys, Nancy Drew, biographies, anything, everything. I excelled in my school’s summer reading programs.

My parents were readers, one wall of our living room was a big built-in library, but all I really remember is the shelf of Readers Digest Condensed Books. My grandfather subscribed me to Children’s Book-of-the-Month Club, and the day the new book was delivered was the very best day of the month. I’d tear open the package and devour the book, then often immediately reread it.

Forced to attend summer school every summer,  I was enrolled in a Power Reading program. I remember being required to read a color-coded text, then answer questions, before moving on to a “higher” color. A waste of time. I hated it, while the other kids were out playing. My grandfather also ordered a subscription to Readers Digest just so that I could study “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power.” Maybe it worked: as a teenager I loved living inside long  novels, the bigger the better: Michener’s Hawaii and The Source, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago...

When required to write book reviews in school, I was never quite confident about my opinion. So I turned to Readers Guide to Periodical Literature. Reading professional reviews culled from those thick green volumes helped me solidify my evaluation of the book in question. I don’t think I plagiarized as much as allowed myself to be inspired.  Ironic that I eventually became a professional book reviewer, publishing my reviews in a variety of venues, even winning an award from Library Journal.

Our family played Scrabble, and it took me a long time to realize that trotting out my 25-cent words wasn’t necessarily an advantage. Shorter, more boring words played strategically would earn more points. I may have worked crossword puzzles, but I don’t have strong memories of that,  I was quickly bored.

What I do remember, vividly, is Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics. I don’t know when (or why) my parents thought it would be a good idea to enroll me in this course. I didn’t like it at all. I was already a fast reader, and resented the techniques being taught. It, almost, turned me away from my love of literature. I vaguely recall repeatedly being driven to the classroom of an evening. I don’t remember how many times I had to attend. As soon as the course was over, I reverted to my previous habit and made snarky quips about the course for years.

Killing time yesterday at a public library, I serendipitously discovered a new book: Scan Artist: How Evelyn Wood Convinced the World That Speed-Reading Worked by Marcia Biederman. To quote the product description:

The best-known educator of the twentieth century was a scammer in cashmere. “The most famous reading teacher in the world,” as television hosts introduced her, Evelyn Wood had little classroom experience, no degrees in reading instruction, and a background that included work at the Mormon mission in Germany at the time when the church was cooperating with the Third Reich. Nevertheless, a nation spooked by Sputnik and panicked by paperwork eagerly embraced her promises of a speed-reading revolution. Journalists, lawmakers and two US presidents lent credibility to Wood’s claims of turbocharging reading speeds through a method once compared to the miracle at Lourdes. Time magazine reported Woods grads could polish off Dr. Zhivago in one hour; a senator swore that Wood’s method had boosted his reading speed to more than ten thousand words per minute. But science showed that her method taught only skimming, with disastrous effects on comprehension–a fact Wood was aware of from early in her career. Fudging test results, and squelching critics, she founded a company that enrolled one million. The course’s popularity endured even as evidence of its shortcomings continued to accumulate. Today, as apps and online courses attempt to spark a speed-reading revival, this engaging look at Wood’s rise from mission worker to marketer exposes the pitfalls of embracing a con artist’s worthless solution to imaginary problems.

How validating, vindicating, that this miserable technique was a scam. I am amazed and appalled that Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics videos and books remain on the market (“works like magic”). It is shocking really. Apparently it’s true that “There’s a sucker born every minute,” as attributed to P.T. Barnum. What is it about that post-war period that inspired such self-deception? On one hand, even though I was one of her dupes, I’m impressed that the little lady was able to pull the dust jacket over everyone’s eyes.

But now I have to go read another book.

COVID Coping

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I am fascinated by how we’re all coping so differently with this unprecedented situation. Some folks are listening to politicians, physicians, pundits, journalists, and any/everyone else putting forth predictions. I can’t count the friends who have confessed that they’re “watching way too much news.” On the other hand, I am, as usual, the ostrich with its head in the sand, or up its butt, as the case may be. I have not listened to one word of verbiage, broadcast, streaming, or other forms masquerading as “news”. I monitor my reading intake, starting with the New York Times’s daily “California Today” feed, and clicking only on carefully selected links. I may well be missing important developments, but I’m also not spiraling into the pits of depression and panic by exposing myself to articles which do little more than fan the flames of fear. I do my morning meditation, read books (mostly historical nonfiction) and watch Netflix documentaries and movies of an evening. I’m snacking too much, sleeping a lot and not exercising enough. I’m unfocused, frequently discombobulated, and my flat is in untold disarray.  I am grateful for my privileged situation and grieving for the many losses of others. I’m inspired by the examples of thoughtfulness and generosity (one example: my in-laws are busily making masks for postal workers) and appalled by the hoarding, price gouging, and insider trading exhibited by others. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that people behave admirably or abominably in a crisis.

Some of my octogenarian friends are refusing to leave their living spaces for any reason at all. Others, in the same age bracket, are running what to me seem like non-essential errands, zipping around for the sake of getting out and about. I am fortunate to have a large flat and a lovely garden, so it’s easy to stick close to home, except for a weekly walk with a friend who lives a few blocks away (keeping six feet apart at all times, of course). My partner is sequestered separately across town, so we talk and text frequently through the day, but our time together has been limited to the romance of… grocery shopping. When I magnanimously offered to “kidnap” another nearby friend to stave off cabin fever, she declined, saying that she was in her 70s, asthmatic, and a caregiver, and didn’t want to take any risks.

Having co-hosted a Death Café for nearly five years, I was wary of attempting a virtual version in this new environment. While I have learned that people are starving for a safe place to share fears, beliefs, and resources around the stigmatized topic, I didn’t know what to expect. I needn’t have been apprehensive; my very first experience using Zoom was remarkably successful. I was anticipating that it might devolve into a COVID Café, and though the pandemic was a topic of conversation, the discussion amongst the 15 of us was balanced and respectful.  One unexpected advantage was that attendees didn’t need to be geographically proximate; one participant was in Santa Barbara, one in Sausalito, and the remainder of us in between.

I continue to volunteer for a national organization committed to supporting people exploring their end-of-life options. I talk to people throughout the Southwest who are terrified of going to the hospital, being placed on a ventilator, having CPR performed, or risking other invasive procedures. Many live alone and/or in what one caller described as her “rinky-dink town.” Now that travel is curtailed, the difficult decision was made to temporarily stop accepting new applications, leaving people one less option. I commiserate with each person’s unique predicament. I can recommend online resources for self-deliverance, but can’t offer the expertise and experience of our Exit Guides. I explain the pros and cons of Voluntarily Stopping Eating and Drinking and discuss the challenges of identifying a hospice that might support such a plan. The irony is not lost on me that while most of the world is desperately seeking solutions to staying alive, I’m supporting others’ desire to hasten their own death. My brother is a palliative care physician in Tacoma and his son, my nephew, reports, “The COVID death now thought to be first in the nation occurred at Harborview Medical Center [in Seattle] where I was working at that time.”

Perhaps the worst part of all this is not knowing how long this situation will continue. Will it be weeks or months? And what will the world look like when we (some of us) are able to return to it? Only time will tell. Until then, I find solace in watching the birds soar across the sky, the clouds change color and shape, trees shimmy in the breeze. We can only take this moment by moment, one day at a time.

A slogan developed over eighty years ago, in response to another world crisis is still, or again, apt: “Keep calm and carry on.”

Easy Listening

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This blog should definitely have a soundtrack. I’m reading a book by Joseph Lanza entitled Elevator Music: A Surreal History of Muzak, Easy Listening, and Other Moodsong. (Just so you know, there are copyright symbols next to Muzak and Moodsong) and I’m listening to Mystic Moods Orchestra’s 1966 album One Stormy Night, the pitter patter of pouring rain and train whistles of which I remember vividly and fondly from my youth. Perhaps because it rarely rained in Southern California (another song cue?) I loved rainy days, and not merely because we didn’t have to dress out for gym.

I had no idea about my parents’ taste in music, but I remember albums by Martin Denny (“Exotica”) and 101 Strings Orchestra (or was it Living Strings?), and the many Readers Digest boxed sets. I can hear the ubiquitous theme songs to Percy Faith’s A Place in the Sun and The Song from Moulin Rouge (Where is Your Heart?) as well as Mantovani’s Ebb Tide. I also recognized the names Ray Conniff, Bert Kaempfert, Andre Kostelanetz (here referred to as “Kosty”) and Nelson Riddle.

I loved the dueling pianos of Ferrante & Teicher and the campy keyboarding of Liberace. I didn’t know that Lawrence Welk’s ballad written on the birth of his daughter became “Bubbles in the Wine” to capitalize on his Champagne Music Makers. I only know that we watched his television program religiously, and that one of my few claims to fame was performing the accordion in 1960 (I was 8) with the Lawrence Welk Orchestra at Pacific Ocean Park in Santa Monica.

Was it because I was a Francophile that I was fascinated by Francis Lai and Michel Legrand? And because I was a movie nut that I loved Matt Monro crooning Born Free, the swelling themes of Ernest Gold’s anthem Exodus, and of course, the soaring strings and crooning chorus of Henry Mancini’s Moon River.

I later loved songs sung against Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, The Carpenters’ aural landscapes,  and Angelo Badalamenti’s lush orchestrations. Easy listening is supposedly distinguished from elevator music, mood music, or lounge music, because while it might have been popular in some of the same venues it was meant to be listened to for itself rather than as background sound. Call it what you will, I still love listening to it.

Mission mayhem

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Studying California Missions reportedly became part of the fourth-grade curriculum in the 1960s. I was a fourth grader at Buena Terra Grammar School in 1961. I remember my parents driving us to tour many of the missions along El Camino Real, or at least experience the ruins.  And I recall proudly constructing a model of San Juan Capistrano. I only wish I had a photograph of my plaster and paint masterpiece.5462136055_3a0deb21a7_z

It certainly couldn’t compare to the ones at Knott’s Berry Farm that my brother and I regularly visited. I’ve learned that the original mission models first appeared in the park in 1956, commissioned by Walter Knott to be placed along a trail next to the stagecoach ride to keep people from wandering in front of the horse-drawn carriages. Apparently Knott had heard about a set of mission models displayed at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition built by Leon Bayard de Volo, an Italian immigrant. De Volo worked for Warner Bros. for many years before beginning to build models on contract when Knott commissioned a larger set for the farm.

Over the years, one by one, the models were removed until the last two were taken away, placed in storage in 1998. In 2013 the models were rediscovered, lovingly restored or reconstructed, and reinstalled in 2016. Small huts were built to protect each mission model from the elements. Wired to provide light, with backdrops to represent the sky, the huts were placed in the same area along the stagecoach trail. Knott’s General Manager was quoted as saying, “The California Mission models hold as much educational value as they do sentimental value for many of our guests.”

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A model of Mission San Luis Obispo on display at Knott’s Berry Farm. The project to refurbish and in some cases, build from scratch, the mission models started in 2014, with most of the restoration done by Bob Weir. (Photo by Mark Eades, Orange County Register/SCNG) Taken in Buena Park at Knott’s Berry Farm on Thursday, December 1, 2016.

The timing of this resurrection seems interesting given that Junipero Serra was canonized in September 2015. For years there has been increasing documentation of the missionaries’ mistreatment of the indigenous Californians. Rape, murder, incarceration, slavery, it is hard to reconcile these revelations with the Franciscan fathers I learned about in school. They may have been well-intentioned, but I am appalled that, without adequate contextualization, the missions and missionaries continue to be extolled.

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In mid-May 2015, my review of Elias Castillo’s A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions appeared in the San Francisco Examiner:

School students and tourists may have a romantic vision of California’s missions and the relationship between indigenous peoples and the Franciscan friars who headed them. Journalist Elias Castillo’s book, “A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions,” challenges the notion, charging that forced labor and physical punishment ultimately led to the annihilation of California’s early inhabitants.

Twenty-one missions stretch across the state, from Mission San Diego de Alcalá, founded in San Diego in 1769, to Mission San Francisco de Solano, founded in Sonoma in 1823. Derived from mission records, it is estimated that the state’s indigenous population before the mission period was as high as 350,000, with an estimated 500 to 600 tribes or tribelets with their own cultures, traditions and languages. (After the period, the population is estimated at 150,000.)

Castillo succinctly traces the life of Miguel Joseph Serra (he later took the name Junípero to honor Saint Junipero, a companion of Saint Francis), including the iconic figure’s self-inflicted lashings and self-loathing. Serra subscribed to the contemporary view that indigenous people were demonic and their culture must be destroyed, replaced with “belief in a single God and the complex accompanying Catholic morality, theology and rituals.”

The details of this well-meaning, if misguided, cultural confrontation are an important, and painful story, adding immeasurably to our understanding of a complicated and contested chapter of California’s history.

The book’s publication is timely, with Pope Francis’ plans to canonize Father Serra, who was beatified in 1988, in September.

Castillo, a three-time nominee for the Pulitzer Prize and a former reporter for the San Jose Mercury News and the Associated Press, researched the book using primary sources, including material from little-known church and Spanish government archives.

His heavily footnoted text is fascinating in its detailed accessibility, and 14 pages of bibliographic sources, eight pages of color plates, a five-page index and various appendices solidify the documentation, which is not undermined by the few minor typos.

Lest one think that this history is no longer relevant, Castillo ends with this reminder: “The Bureau of Indian Affairs is playing Russian Roulette with the heritage of the United States. Each year that passes as the agency, perhaps deliberately, moves at a ponderous snail’s pace on petitions for recognition, Indian elders die and along with them the history, language, knowledge, and traditions of the First Americans…”

“Reflections in a Golden Eye”

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I was a movie-crazy teenager, eagerly anticipating each newly-released star-studded movie. The books from which they were adapted were often re-issued in a movie tie-in edition, promising “soon to be a major motion picture” and “including 16 pages of photographs from the forthcoming film.” In 1967, at the age of fifteen, in anticipation of Reflections in a Golden Eye, I bought a paperback of Carson McCullers’ 1941 novel, and read it surreptitiously in my bedroom so it wouldn’t be confiscated by my parents.th (1)

I didn’t realize I had never actually seen the movie. I do remember being fascinated by The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, the 1968 film adaptation of McCuller’s 1940 novel and but I didn’t know much about McCullers’ complicated life.

I learned that Lula Carson Smith was born February 19, 1917 and suffered from several illnesses throughout her life, including alcoholism. She had rheumatic fever at the age of 15 and suffered from strokes that began in her youth. By the age of 31 her left side was entirely paralyzed.
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In 1937, at the age of 20, she married an ex-soldier and aspiring writer, Reeves McCullers. Carson and Reeves McCullers divorced in 1941, then remarried in 1945. During this period of separation, Reeves had a love relationship with the composer David Diamond. McCullers fell in love with a number of women and pursued them sexually with great aggression, but seems not to have succeeded in having sex with any of them. Her romantic obsessions included Gypsy Rose Lee, Katherine Anne Porter, and the Swiss journalist, travel writer and novelist Annemarie Schwarzenbach (1908-1942) to whom she dedicated RGE. “She had a face that I knew would haunt me for the rest of my life.” Queer cultural critic Sarah Schulman has suggested that “had McCullers been alive today, not only would she have probably been in A.A. and on antidepressants, she might have been living as a transgender man.”

Reflections in a Golden Eye first appeared in Harper’s Bazaar in 1940, serialized in the October–November issues. McCullers wrote the piece in 1939, originally using the title “Army Post”. She said the story had germinated when, as an adolescent, she had first stepped into the alien territory of Fort Benning, Georgia. A more direct inspiration came from a chance remark from her husband about a voyeur who had been arrested at Fort Bragg — a young soldier who had been caught peeping inside the married officers’ quarters.

She later said : “I am so immersed in my characters that their motives are my own. When I write about a thief, I become one; when I write about Captain Penderton, I become a homosexual man. I become the characters I write about and I bless the Latin poet Terence who said, ‘Nothing human is alien to me.'”

The book was published by Houghton Mifflin on February 14, 1941, to mostly poor reviews. In 1948, severely depressed, she attempted suicide. She lived the last twenty years of her life in Nyack, New York, where she died on September 29, 1967, after a brain hemorrhage, at the age of 50. Only two weeks before the film adaptation of her novel was released.

In 1956 producers Harold Hecht and Burt Lancaster planned to adapt the book with a script by Tennessee Williams, with Michael Anderson directing. Tony Richardson hoped to direct this film with Marlon Brando and Jeanne Moreau in the lead roles. In 1964 Ava Gardner was announced for the role of Leonora Penderton.

John Huston enlisted Chapman Mortimer, “a fine Scottish novelist, not well known,” to write the screenplay, then reviewed it with Carson McCullers. In Huston’s 1980 memoir, An Open Book, he writes “The strokes had slowed her speech, and some words were slurred, but her observations were acute and pointed. She approved of the script.” Huston and Gladys Hill then incorporated McCuller’s suggestions and sharpened some of the dialogue. At some point Francis Ford Coppola is reported to have contributed some uncredited writing on the screenplay.

The role of Major Penderton was extremely physically demanding and the insurance company underwriting the production required proof that Montgomery Clift –the original choice for the Pemberton role–was fit enough for the role after his years of illness. Clift’s long-time friend Elizabeth Taylor committed her large salary as insurance in order to secure Clift for the role. However, Clift subsequently died of a heart attack before filming began. The role was reputedly turned by Richard Burton, Robert Mitchum, William Holden, and Lee Marvin, before Marlon Brando was cast. When Huston asked if Brandon could ride a horse, “he assured me that he had been raised on a horse ranch. Later, during the filming of the movie, I noticed that he exhibited such a fear of horses that presently Elizabeth Taylor, who is a good horsewoman, began to be afraid also. I wondered then, as now, if Marlon got this fear because he had so immersed himself in his role. The character he played had a fear of horses. It could well be.” (Still photographs of Brando as Major Penderton were used later by the producers of Apocalypse Now, displayed in the service record of his character Colonel Walter E. Kurtz.)

The completed film stars Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, with Julie Harris, Brian Keith and Robert Forster. Julie Harris also played Frankie Addams, 12-year-old tomboy in The Member of the Wedding, the 1950 play McCullers adapted from her 1946 novel, and was nominated for an Academy Award in the 1952 film version. Private Williams was Robert Forster’s first role. He went on to appear in Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969), The Delta Force (1986), and Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997), for which Forster was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. This marks the only film performance of Zorro David (Anacleto).
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Some of the film was shot in New York City and on Long Island, where Huston was permitted to use the former Mitchel Field, then in use by Nassau Community College. Many of the interiors and some of the exteriors were done in Italy. It is interesting to note that the story which takes place on an army post, was published during WWII and released as a film in the middle of the Viet Nam war.

Toshiro Mayuzumi composed more than a hundred film scores between  1951 and 1984. The best-known is probably John Huston’s The Bible: In the Beginning (1966), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score.

Huston recounts the story of the different versions of the film:

“Reflections is a psychological story. Vivid Technicolor would, I felt, get between the audience and the story — a story of minds, thoughts, emotions. So I was looking for a particular kind of color. Weeks and months [of experimentation by the Italian Technicolor lab] were involved, starting well before the commencement of the picture and continuing after the final shots. What we achieved was a golden effect — a diffuse amber color — that was quite beautiful and matched the mood of the picture.

When I sent the final print to the United States, I thought it was something of a triumph. Warner Brothers thought differently; they didn’t like the color. I fought this, and finally, using every threat, contact and influence I could muster, I got the studio to agree to make fifty prints in the amber color and to release these first to theaters in major American cities. The remainder would be make in standard Technicolor.

Every now and then someone comes up to me and says I’ve seen Reflections in the original color, and it is magnificent! Why did they ever release it in straight Technicolor?” So far as I’m concerned, the reason is that the sales department of Warners was headed by a man whose taste in color was shaped by early B pirate films: “The more color per square foot of screen the better the picture.

I like RGE. I think it is one of my best pictures. The entire cast turned in beautiful performances, even better than I had hoped for. And Reflections is a well-constructed picture. Scene by scene — in my humble opinion– it is pretty hard to fault.”

The film was released October 13, 1967 to mixed reviews and was unsuccessful at the box office: Variety called it a “pretentious melodrama” but praised Keith’s “superb” performance as the “rationalizing and insensitive middle-class hypocrite.” Time magazine described it as a “gallery of grotesques,” with the poetry of the novel missing from the film.  “All that remains praiseworthy is the film’s extraordinary photographic technique.” And Roger Ebert observed that the film was released without the usual publicity, despite its stellar cast and director. “Was the movie so wretchedly bad that Warner Bros. decided to keep it a secret? Or could it be, perhaps, that it was too good?” Ebert concludes the latter, praising all aspects of the production, but notes that the audience he saw it with greeted the film’s emotional moments with guffaws and nervous laughter.

Note the film’s advertising tagline: “In the loosest sense he is her husband. . .and in the loosest way she is his wife!”

In The Celluloid Closet Vito Russo writes that Reflections in a Golden Eye was released with a seal of approval despite John Huston’s refusal to make a series of cuts requested by the Catholic Office for Motion Pictures and the Motion Picture Association of America. In spite of a “C” (Condemned) rating the film gained wide distribution, something that could not have happened a decade earlier. One year later, in 1968, the Motion Picture Production Code was abolished altogether in favor of today’s “alphabet soup” rating system.

And the trailer ends: “Suggested for mature audiences. Leave the children home.”

IMG_9637A version of this essay was originally presented on August 15, 2019 to introduce a (35-mm Technicolor) screening of Reflections in a Golden Eye as part of SFMOMA’s Modern Cinema series, “Haunted: Gothic Tales by Women”.
The DVD announces “The restoration you are about to see replicates the Director John Huston’s original, stylized color design which uses muted color and warm golden tone to reflect the atmosphere and drama of this story. The feature appeared in theatres for just one week with this original color design before the studio imposed a full color treatment for general release, which did not reflect Huston’s original vision.”
I’d be curious which version readers prefer.

Name Dropping

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Everywhere one turns this month the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riot is being commemorated and celebrated. The series of spontaneous, violent demonstrations by disenfranchised queer people against a police raid in Greenwich Village, New York, in June 1969, is now considered the incident that sparked the modern lesbian and gay civil rights movement.

I was 16 in June 1969. A clueless kid who knew he was different, with no idea what that really meant. I never heard about them, not on television, not in history books, nothing. I don’t even remember when this event crept into my consciousness. And I certainly never dreamed that I would have crossed paths with so many activists over the intervening fifty years.

Chatting recently with a young woman working on the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, I mentioned that I’d met a few of the people she was historicizing.  When she was obviously impressed, I realized that in my role as librarian, researcher, writer, and archivist, I was a bridge between these important pioneers, many of them now gone, and her generation.

I met most of these activists in my role as the founding Program Manager of the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian (now LGBTQIA) Center at the San Francisco Public Library. To celebrate the Center’s opening, renowned transgender scholar and activist Susan Stryker and I co-authored Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area. We included information Susan had recently uncovered about a riot at Compton’s Cafeteria in August 1966, documented in her award-winning film Screaming Queens, which brought attention to similar pre-Stonewall actions around the country. It had fallen to me to ask Armistead Maupin to contribute an introduction to Gay by the Bay, but my nervousness was unnecessary as the always-in-demand author charmingly obliged. Our paths crossed occasionally in the intervening years, before he and his handsome husband, Christopher, recently decamped to London.

Jim Hormel made history when, against considerable right wing opposition, he was named the first openly LGBTQ American ambassador, to Luxembourg. Jim was always supportive of me personally and professionally, and I was thrilled when a profile in the local paper depicted him peeking over the cover of Gay by the Bay. I learned a lot about the rest of his life by reading his fascinating memoir Fit to Serve: Reflections on a Secret Life, Private Struggle, and Public Battle to Become the First Openly Gay U.S. Ambassador.

In 2006 I attended the very first LGBTQ Archives, Libraries, Museums and Special Collections (ALMS) conference cohosted by the Quatrefoil Library and the Tretter Collection at the University of Minnesota. Among the many activities the international attendees were treated to, we were squired through the massive archives by the inveterate collector Jean Tretter himself. Minneapolis native Phil Willkie, founder of the James White Review, hosted a party where I met Frank Kameny and somehow ended up giving him a ride to the airport. At the time Frank was trying to find an archival repository for the protest picket signs reading “First Class Citizenship for Homosexuals” that he had hand-lettered and carried in 1965. I don’t think I fully understood how important he was to the movement, and how disappointed he was that no one seemed to understand the historical significance of his material. Through hard work and negotiations, he was able to see them persevered for posterity at the Smithsonian Institution. Years earlier I had become friends with Dick Hewetson, co-founder of Minneapolis’ pioneering Quatrefoil Library. The former minister moved to San Francisco where he encouraged the San Francisco Public Library to enhance its collections on atheism. During the ALMS Conference, Dick generously arranged for a friend to drive us all around Minneapolis and Saint Paul so that I could see the sights.

Over the years I spent a considerable amount of time with library activist Barbara Gittings and her partner, photographer Kay (Tobin) Lahusen, mostly at events related to the American Library Association. I was impressed with their commitment to the cause. They flew separately, they once told me: in case of a plane crash, the survivor would continue their important work. The last time I saw Barbara, we were on a panel together in Los Angeles, and she was not well. That didn’t stop her from doing her utmost to impart her considered perspective on the proceedings.  Influential MCC minister Jim Mitulski and I once arranged for a historic reunion of Del Martin & Phyllis Lyon, co-founders of the Daughters of Bilitis, with Barbara and Kay. There had been some bad blood back in the day, but this time these fierce little old ladies seemed glad to reunite.

I encountered the handsome and irascible Harry Hay, founder of the Mattachine Society, and his winsome partner, John Burnside, many times while working with the cadre of volunteers dedicated to ensuring his papers were preserved and made accessible at the Library. These included his biographer Stuart Timmons and radical faerie Joey Cain, among others. I also became good friends with John Gruber, the last surviving founding member of the Mattachine Society, the person who had covertly snapped the sole, now-famous, photograph of the group.

I never met Harvey Milk, but I visited the home he once shared with Scott Smith, and worked with his friends, including photographer Dan Nicoletta, to secure the Harvey Milk-Scott Smith Collection for the Hormel Center. After we included Danny’s work in Gay by the Bay, he and I became friends. As I did with Cathy Cade, Rich Gerharter and Chloe Atkins.

I have stories about Barbara Grier & Donna McBride, starting with a visit to the Naiad Press compound in Tallahassee, FL. Suffice it to say that Barbara was an important figure in promoting lesbian literature albeit quite cantankerous. I remember once  sifting through one of the many boxes Barbara had sent, and almost tossed a lone salt shaker, until I realized it was the salt shaker used on the cover of Naiad’s reissue of Patricia Highsmith’s classic lesbian novel (using the pseudonym Clare Morgan) The Price of Salt. Tee Corinne, who designed many of Naiad’s covers, also became a friend while we were both involved with instigating a Queer Caucus at the College Art Association.

Other literary figures include Ann Bannon, the charming author of the Beebo Brinker Chronicles, who has over the years become a dear friend. She embraces her moniker of “Queen of the Pulps” as she reminisces in documentaries and on panels about her experiences in the early 1960s. Many women tell her that her books saved their lives by providing a road map to their sexual identity.  I also befriended one of her male counterparts, the late Victor Banis, the prolific pioneering pulp writer who used many pseudonyms. When Katherine V. Forrest, beloved mystery and science fiction author, and I co-edited Love, Castro Street, we included a lovely reminiscence by Victor. I also became friends with Katherine’s pal, Michael Nava, author of the award-winning Henry Rios mysteries, who also contributed to the anthology.

In the 1990s on a visit to the ONE Institute I was introduced to W. Dorr Legg and Jim Kepner. I indirectly interacted with Morris Kight, when my partner-at-the-time’s artwork was accepted into a group exhibit, only to be nixed by Kight. Speaking of Southern California, I became friends with activist, author and therapist Betty Berzon and her partner Terry DeCrescenzo, ultimately contributing an essay about this power couple to an anthology about gay men and their divas.  And I always enjoyed chatting with their good friends author and minister Malcolm Boyd and his life-partner, journalist, photographer, and therapist Mark Thompson.

Other names to drop: Allan Bérubé, the historian, activist, author of Coming Out Under Fire : The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two. We would sometimes meet for coffee while he was at the SFPL doing extensive research for his next project. I admire FTM activist Jamison Green and remember fondly our time together on the Frameline screening committee, sometimes rolling our eyes as the elders in the group. I’d never heard of Peter Berlin when two friend separately said someone should make a documentary about the pioneering porn star. So I introduced Jim Tushinski and Lawrence Helman, who went on to co-produce That Man: Peter Berlin. There have been many others important figures, some of them still with us.

I’ve just read We are Everywhere: Protest, Power, and Pride in the History of Queer Liberation by Matthew Riemer and Leighton Brown. Unfamiliar with the relatively young authors’ @lgbt_history Instagram account, I was expecting a standard-issue coffee table book and was therefore surprised and delighted to discover that I’d never seen many of the photographs and the nuanced stories enhanced my understanding of the queer civil rights movement’s complicated path over the past five decades. This new book reminded me of the many losses and gains, fits and starts, how far we’ve come and how far we still need to go, in the struggle for our basic human rights.

It also reminded me of how many of these pioneers have enriched my own life.

“I could have danced all night…”

Standard

“Last dance, it’s my last chance for love…” The disco diva’s voice soars. I smile with memories of moving to the relentless beat. Suddenly I realize my eyes have filled with tears and I am weeping. What? Why?

I am remembering all my dance partners, seeing them raise their arms, swing their legs, shake their booties. Full of life, desiring love. We are filled with the bone-marrow loud music, and likely some drugs. The lights flash, a glitter ball twirls, colors shoot in every direction. I am here and I am there, but they — most of them — are no longer here: Randy, John, Joseph, Frank, Matt, Tom… My heart can’t hold the names of all the friends cut down in their prime.

But it can, and it does. They are here now with me in the music, their souls in the sound waves, their smiles in mine, their dance floor moves never sharper, more focused. I smell their sweat, the poppers, patchouli, stale beer. And I dance with them, without them.

“I need you by me, beside me to guide me, to hold me…”

Transported across the decades, I am laughing and crying and knowing I’ll be joining them someday soon. We’re all moving in the same direction, different timing, different steps, but the beat is the same. It’s a heart beat, the rhythm of our breath, partly from one too many high energy songs back-to-back, the unseen DJ unwilling to give us a chance to catch our breath.

I miss these men. They were my brothers We were in this together. Until one by one they were taken away like some macabre version of musical chairs.

“Disco is dead” proclaimed those who didn’t understand. They were wrong. As long as disco was alive so were we. So were the flamboyant queens with huge shiny fans preening, cavorting, presenting themselves to the world, night after night.  And though they’re gone, they’re not really. I am grateful for the grief. Grateful for their return on Donna Summer’s vibrato. They show their ID, order a drink, and sashay on to the dance floor of my heart, one more time. “Last dance…”

It’s happening again, right now, as I write this. I am laughing and sobbing simultaneously, making an imaginary rainbow. And that too makes me smile, at the corny cliché that’s perfect, as I remember my departed dear friends dancing.

And now I realize it’s not only them I’m remembering but myself. The cute clueless guy looking for love, not just sex like everyone else, and never quite finding it. And now I know I have, thanks to Donna Summer. “It’s my last chance for love…”