Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Chapter 5: Old Friends

Chapter 5
Old Friends

“I never said any such thing about Jane Wyman!”
Tennessee picked up the copy of The Paris Review from the coffee table and flipped through it without seeing. Dotson Rader had left it before leaving our suite at the Hotel Elysee.
“Never said that about Reagan either—not in front of Dotson. Damn it!”
He snapped the volume shut and tossed it back on the table. A moment later, he picked it back up, and allowing the leaves to open in his hands, the pages parted at the right place. He skimmed the text for a moment.
“Here it is. ‘The no-nose girl married the no-brains man.’” He looked at me, exaggerating the disbelief and anger he had hidden from Dotson, and then carried the journal into his room.
My stomach sank. In a few days, we were to fly to Washington for the Kennedy Center Honors—including a White House reception hosted by President Reagan and his second wife, Nancy.
A week before, Tennessee had shown me the invitation. He had been an honoree two years before, in 1979, and now, the trustees had invited him and a companion to attend the ceremonies as their guests. For two days, I hid my excitement, pretending not to care. He toyed with me, bringing up the subject repeatedly—we would go, we would not go—amused by my attempts at detachment. Finally, on the third day, he decided we would attend. I jumped to handle the details. I quickly called the White House, giving our Social Security numbers and other information needed for security clearance. I had long fantasized about attending the Academy Awards. This would be better.
Dotson and his boyfriend, Richard Zoerink, had come to our suite that morning to visit and to show Tennessee the new issue of The Paris Review, which included Dotson’s interview. Tall, with dark unkempt hair, big glasses, and a long, red neck-scarf, Dotson looked like the caricature of a college radical from the sixties—the kind of person who championed causes I had followed and led organizations I never joined. He was friendly—but with a patronizing edge. He took us to lunch. There, he playfully engaged Tennessee, alternately as a friend and as you might a favorite uncle-gone-batty.
Dotson wrote for magazines, and according to Tennessee, was the highest paid writer in his field. Tennessee was the nation’s most successful playwright. But Dotson’s triumph was in the present, while Tennessee’s was in the past. Critics had savaged Tennessee’s later work—work which confused the audiences that loved his earlier plays. Still, he always responded politely when asked about Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or A Streetcar Named Desire. Tennessee loved Dotson’s camaraderie and his talent, but Dotson’s friendship came bundled with the reminder of the new success that eluded Tennessee.
“That interview . . .” His face grew red as he strode back into the room. “He combined things I said over the years—made some up. There was no . . . interview!
I had seen several of Tennessee’s outbursts, and had already learned that as often as not, he misunderstood, misinterpreted, or forgot something. I did not know what was true here, but I knew he demanded my loyalty.
There was nothing to do about a published interview, but my heart was set on the trip to Washington. While I knew he would settle down eventually, our trip was only a few days away. I could not let an interview in a literary magazine torpedo an opportunity to go to the Honors ceremony and the White House.
“Reagan doesn’t care,” I said. “He won’t read The Paris Review. His staff won’t read it—neither will his friends. Johnson and Nixon retaliated. Reagan just laughs. It rolls right off. He couldn’t care less.”
I let it go. I would have to wait for his decision.

Having been in New York for three days, we were now marking time. Most of the business that brought us north had been dealt with. With the Washington trip no longer certain, I was anxious. It was too early to fly to D.C., and it would have been foolish to return to Key West for such a short time.
We went shopping and Tennessee bought me a tuxedo. I met Jane Smith, a singer and actress who had been in the original production of Oklahoma!, and later sang opera in Europe. Jane was the widow of the architect and artist Tony Smith. Tennessee had known them both since his earliest days in New York, and Jane remained a close friend. Her bearing suggested her years on the stage, and she had a keen alertness to the world around her. Statuesque and possessing clear, smiling eyes, she must have been in her sixties.
Vassilis Voglis, another friend, invited the three of us to his apartment for dinner. A natty dresser in his fifties, he had not known Tennessee as long. His rich, accented voice revealed his Greek origins. Like Jane, he was warm and expressive. A few years before, Vassilis had inherited a small fortune when his lover, whose father had been president of the New York Stock Exchange, died of cancer. Vassilis worked for arts agencies and as a hospital volunteer.
Vassilis had defined a dining room in his loft apartment by enclosing the space with loaded, old bookcases. Removed from the huge front windows that looked down on city streets five floors below, we dined in candlelight, surrounded by Dickens and Proust. A week before, Vassilis had traveled to New Jersey and gleaned potatoes from a field, potatoes too small for the mechanical harvester. The aroma of roast pork and potatoes filled the air.
 “Oh, Vass, this wine is so good,” Jane said, as we finished dining. She raising her glass of Bordeaux to the light. “I can’t remember when I’ve dined so well.”
 She put down her glass. “And it’s so good to have everyone here—away from business.” She put her hand on Tennessee’s arm, smiled, and looked him in the eye. “No one demanding things from Tennessee.”
It was true. There was a complete absence of pressure of any kind. Jane and Vassilis were simply friends and wanted nothing of Tennessee but his company. Jane had been his friend during his biggest successes, and she had been his friend through his darkest days in the late '60s, when he had been committed, briefly, to a mental hospital. She adored him through all of it.
We talked of the upcoming premiere of Tennessee’s new play, A House Not Meant to Stand, which would open in Chicago in April, and of Jane’s daughter’s pregnancy. We listened to Vassilis’s arts gossip.
There was a pear tart for dessert.
The candles burned low.
Jane put her arm across Tennessee’s shoulders. “Tenn darling, you are going to the Kennedy Honors, aren’t you?”
Tennessee removed his glasses and rubbed his eye. “I don’t know. There’s this thing…”
“Yes, I know . . . the interview. There is always some thing, but you’ve never allowed things to stand in your way.”
She turned and looked at him directly. “The interview doesn’t matter. You belong at the ceremony." She smiled at him as she leaned back and then swept her hand slowly through the air. “I can just see the two of you, so handsome in your tuxedoes . . . Everyone will be jealous.” She closed her eyes and put a hand on mine. “Oh, what I wouldn’t give to walk into that auditorium arm-in-arm between the two of you!”
She squeezed my hand and then looked at Tennessee.
“Well . . . you might be right,” he said.
He turned slowly toward me. “What do you think? Shall we brave it? Face Reagan. Spit in his eye?”
“Sure,” I said, “it’s a cocktail reception.”
He smiled through a mock grimace. “OK then, we’ll go.”
With that settled, I was excited again. Everyone was relieved—including Tennessee. As the nation’s most distinguished dramatist, he should be there. The timing of the interview's publication was unfortunate, but who in the Reagan White House would read a literary magazine?
As the light flickered, Vassilis leaned toward Jane. “Could you sing for us?”
She smiled as she straightened her back, and then met Tennessee’s eyes.
Oh Danny boy,” she began, “the pipes, the pipes are calling . . .” She sang unaccompanied and unselfconsciously, and when she finished there was nothing at all to say. Then she sang “My Bill” from Showboat. Had her late husband materialized in the candlelight, I would not have been surprised.
When she finished, she turned to me.
“Scott, what can I sing for you?”
After a beat, the question registered. I could think of only one song. “Summertime.”
Whenever I listened to music, I heard melody but few lyrics. “Summertime” flowed through Jane as if she were a clear channel. I heard all of the words for the first time. When she finished, I thanked her, wishing I had a more adequate response.
It had grown late, and Jane had to drive home to New Jersey. The three of us found our coats, thanked Vassilis, and rode the elevator down to the street. Tennessee and I walked Jane to her car, and then, cocooned in the warmth of the taxi and fully sated, I closed my eyes as the Checker rattled and bounced through the frigid night.

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