Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Chapter 8: The Gauntlet and the Honors

Chapter 8
The Gauntlet and the Honors

The distant thunk of a door woke me up. I opened my eyes, but all I heard was the hum of the heating unit. The back of my mouth burned. I let one foot fall to the floor, and then the other. I went to the bathroom sink, drew a glass of water, and wandered to the window. I searched for the cord, and then pulled back the heavy drapes. Monumental buildings I had recognized since childhood sat low—huddled tombstones under the monochrome sky.
I missed the Keys. Awakening—a fragrant breeze flowing across my body. Poincianas enflamed; feral roosters crowing in the lanes.
            One more day. One big day. First the White House reception, and then the Gala Performance. And then, after that, one, last, formal dinner.
I tested my shirt.
I donned the hotel robe and walked into the living room. Coffee.
            Tennessee, robed, sat typing. Sheets of paper littered the desk and the floor. Next to the typewriter, a half-drunk cup of coffee sat askew in a saucer brimming with slosh. In the kitchen alcove, cabinet doors hung open in all directions; a coated glass sat on a beach of Metamucil grit. Tennessee was at home.
            “Oh . . .” he said, turning in his chair. “Good morning. Call room service—strong coffee. Orange juice too—whatever you want.” He turned back to his typewriter and jammed a fresh sheet of paper into place. “Big day.”
            I wondered how long ago he had ordered his first cup. I shook my head. What difference did it make?
I dialed room service.
            Tennessee cackled. “I believe our room service friend left that Munchkin robe in your room. He’ll come quickly when you call.”
            “Hello?” I said into the phone, “Yes . . .”
            “I’ve seen him,” Tennessee said. “Toes of his shoes flat—shined to mirrors.”
Glancing at his back, I could see his silent laugh.
“Sorry,” I said, into the phone, “just a second.”
“Do you want anything else? Food?”
“No—coffee and orange juice.”
I ordered the beverages, and added eggs for me—the path of least resistance. I turned to Tennessee. “I’m going to shower,” I said, “and I’m locking my door. You entertain him.”
“He won’t like that. I’m wearing briefs.”      

I looked forward to the evening’s events, but not to getting Tennessee through the White House. As the day wore on, Tennessee continued at the typewriter—at least he was not obsessing about meeting Reagan face-to-face. Late in the afternoon, we dressed and prepared to leave.
            Another quiet ride in a cab. I cracked the window, and the December air revived me. As the sky darkened, promise returned to the city. An interlaced web of lights crept out along the streets and avenues, pushing back the gloom. My mood skipped along the tops of temporary barricades that lined the roads since the recent Iranian hostage crisis. Security was now beefed up everywhere, especially in Washington. The driver dropped us near the White House. Lining a temporary chain-link fence, military guards stood at crisp attention. Backhoe loaders, stilled for the night, blocked the drive that curved up under the portico. Concrete planters, five feet tall, waited for permanent placement where the backhoes sat. We cleared security at a gate next to what might have been a Swiss guardhouse stolen from the set of Heidi.  
We walked up the drive, entered the house at the ground floor, and were announced to the press. I walked a half step behind Tennessee as photographers, standing and crouching along the corridor, blinded us with firecracker flashes. At the end of the hall, we climbed a flight of stairs, entered a reception room, and headed straight for the bar.
            Now in the White House, Tennessee became anxious again. A couple of people greeted him. He responded nervously without lingering to converse. I understood Tennessee’s fear of Reagan, but I doubted there would be any consequence from the Paris Review interview. Finally in the White House and tired of worrying about Tennessee’s fears, I began to relish the possibility of a scene.
I got another scotch.
Does a no-brains man notice if he is insulted?
I ate a jumbo shrimp in one bite—cocktail sauce just missing my shirt.
Is it insulting to point out how small a woman’s nose is?
The sauce cleared my sinuses; the shrimp were perfect. Who said bureaucrats can't cook?
Tennessee waited at the bar for more wine. I nodded to him.
We had arrived at the end of the appointed reception time, and the hors d'oeuvres had nearly run out. I got another drink, and then loaded my plate with half the remaining shrimp. No longer nervous, I was killing time, waiting for Tennessee. I explored the room, examining the paintings and architectural details, and then returned to pick over the last of the crustaceans. I did not want to look like some deadbeat with no idea where he might get his next meal—but who could resist free shrimp and liquor?
Like Brick Pollitt in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee finally got his click.
“Let’s go baby, get this over with.”
Well into my third scotch, I was ready for anything. The route ahead was an hourglass tipped on its side. Our room funneled into a narrow passageway that opened back out into the East Room on the far side. As the staff cleared the platters, we joined the stragglers in the shrinking queue, and soon entered the narrows to be presented.
Was I swaying?
“Gosh . . . it’s nice to see you.” The President looked up at me and smiled as he shook my hand.
“Thank you, Mr. President.” Suddenly I felt very sober. “How do you do?”
“I wish you had been here earlier,” he said, and then chuckled. He pointed to a tall, narrow Christmas tree. “Nancy and I could’ve used your help.”
Looking up at it, I realized I was as lit as his tree—but without the benefit of the secure stand.
“Invite me earlier next year.”
Had I given the Commander-in-Chief an order? As I contemplated this question, I found the staff had delivered me in front of the First Lady.
“Nice to see you.” If Nancy Reagan had been characterized as being as stiff as a Pez dispenser, she was democratically dispensing the same flavor, “Nice to see you,” to everyone—in startling contrast to her disarming husband. Although Reagan seemed to make personal comments to everyone, he greeted Tennessee perfunctorily. He did not, however, show any sign of annoyance—or awareness of Dotson’s interview.
We popped out into the East Room, a golden room that after our squeeze past the Reagans made us feel giddy and effervescent. Relieved, Tennessee was in no mood to linger, however. Most of the guests had arrived earlier and were already leaving. We joined them in the short walk to the coaches idling at the curb. Dressed in tuxedos and gowns and compressed into school-child spaces, the cream of America’s arts community caravanned to the Kennedy Center in a string of yellow Bluebird busses.
En route, Tennessee began fidgeting. He soon turned to me.
“You certainly hogged the President,” he said through clenched teeth. “I didn’t have a chance to get in a word.”
Not knowing what to say, I looked at him incredulously. I turned back to the window, thinking it must be the alcohol—hoping his mood would change again soon.           

 The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is a giant, columned box overlooking the Potomac. From a distance, it appears to be quite low because it is so long, housing the Eisenhower Theater, the Opera House, and the Concert Hall. Between these venues and around their outer sides, hallways act as soaring buffers, making the auditoriums seem autonomous and human visitors irrelevant. I wondered if Soviet architects had designed it. In the two wide hallways separating the theaters, flags and banners hung from their ceiling, lifeless in the captured air. The foyer, running the length of the wall overlooking the Potomac, is the chandeliered avenue that leads to the entrances of the three auditoriums.
            We entered the building at the back, proceeded up the Hall of Nations, and found the entrance to the Opera House opposite a huge expressionistic bust of President Kennedy. The entrance itself was unpretentious—it could have been a fire exit—but inside, the auditorium seemed a different world, its quiet red opulence inviting and a relief.
Nearly every seat was full. Anticipation filled the air. On the way to our seats, we encountered Pat Kennedy Lawford, her sister Jean Smith, and several of their children. Pat’s eyes, squinting above her tortoiseshell half-glasses, scanned the venue.
She greeted us distractedly, and made no mention of her upcoming project. Tennessee dreaded the gala Pat was planning—to raise funds for needy writing students at Columbia University. He claimed she was using him as the drawing card to raise money for students at an elite university, when so many other students and schools needed more and had less. “Will she have a food drive for the needy of Hyannis Port next?” But he had not known how to refuse a Kennedy. He had known Jack and Jackie, and had great admiration for both. He considered Jackie a friend.
Months before, Tennessee had agreed to read at Pat’s gala, but when I came on board, he quickly appointed me his liaison. Instead of giving Pat evasive answers himself, he left the task to me. I had already spoken to her several times by phone and, while in Manhattan, delivered materials for him to her Sutton Place residence. But the project was rapidly unraveling. Pat intimated that ticket sales had been slower than expected, and without Tennessee’s active promotion, the whole project would soon collapse.
Deep in concentration, Pat sent two of the children forward toward the front of the auditorium. Like a whistle-less Captain Von Trapp, she marshaled the rest, and after raising her arm, pointed to the far side and back. They all marched off together.
            We found our seats in the orchestra section and sank deep into the upholstery as relieved as if we had been on a day’s march ourselves. We had now survived the Reagans and a flock of Kennedys. It had not occurred to me that the Kennedy Center would be full of Kennedys—not during a Republican administration. I thought they would be in Hyannis Port, plotting a return to power. A sprinkling of Republican politicians sat smiling in the audience—the same ones who in Congress perennially pulled knives on arts funding.
            Walter Cronkite strode up the aisle smiling. Lights flashed. Two minutes to curtain.
            “Scott—have you seen my husband?” Meryl Streep was in a near panic.
            “I can’t find Don. Help me.”
            I was afraid to admit I had focused entirely on her when she introduced him. I had no recollection of what he looked like.
            “Sure!” I said. I stood up, and shielding my eyes from the lights, scanned the auditorium. At least if his eye caught me towering, he might notice her next to me.
            She gave a little hop. “I see him!” Off she ran.
            A minute later, the lights dimmed, the orchestra began playing, and onto the stage walked the master of ceremonies, Walter Cronkite.
            The event I had looked forward to for what seemed like forever, began. The honorees sat in a box in the back with the President and First Lady. Top performers from film, theater, music, and dance took turns on stage celebrating the life and work of the honorees.
I was thrilled to sit in an audience of so many distinguished people, but as artist after artist walked out on the stage to perform, I began to feel uncomfortable—separated. The people on stage were accomplished. I felt my own lack of accomplishment, my indecision as the movement of life carried everyone else forward. Blood drained from my face, and the ground seemed to drop out from beneath me.
In college, I had told friends I wanted to be an “appreciator of the arts.” Everyone thought that was funny, and so had I. Without consciously trying, it was exactly what I had become—an appreciator with no accomplishments or security of any kind. I moved among these people because of a freak crossing-of-ways with a playwright. It was all a mistake. What would I do when this highlife collapsed?
My ears burned hot as I dwelt on my shortcomings, but my self-flagellation soon exhausted itself, and I turned my attention back to the stage. There was a reason I was there, there in that place and time. I had a job to do. I was taking care of a man who had exhausted himself in the service of life and art—a man who, after taking theater repeatedly to new heights, had been all but abandoned, his late work scorned.
I looked out across the audience and recognized people who had been discovered in Tennessee’s plays and films, or whose careers had gotten a huge boost because of them. Mature artists with careers of their own, none of them could, or should, tend to Tennessee. Renewed, I resolved to give him my best.
            I heard a laugh—nearby and child-like, pure and melodious. I looked to the right of me, and in the row behind us, half a dozen seats down, Meryl Streep sat, her fist covering her mouth. I immediately recognized Don, beside her. Finally, at intermission, I could pull her aside and tell her what Tennessee had said.
However, when the lights came up, she and Don were gone. Standing, I searched the audience, but saw no sign of either of them.
Tennessee and I remained at our seats through the intermission.
Dan Rather walked up the aisle scowling.
            Soon, the house lights went back down, and Meryl walked out onto the stage. She performed without acting. And later, Joe Williams and Ella Fitzgerald sang together to honor Count Basie.
Sitting there, I knew it was unlikely that I would ever move among such people again, but relaxed, my mind returned to the celebration. I felt the energy of the audience and immersed myself in it as it bounced from the stage to the honorees in the balcony and back again. Then beach balls fell from the ceiling, and the crowd began bopping them wildly into the air and across the room—the audience renewing itself through playful connection and the appreciation of its parts.
At the end of the performances, the crowd poured from the Opera House into the Grand Foyer. High above and repeating for the length of the building, huge chandeliers blazed with refracted fire, and, in reflection, continued to infinity. Beneath them, tables had been set for dinner. More tables filled the side halls, and from somewhere unseen, a dance band played swing.
            We found our table in the foyer near the bust of JFK.
            I felt uneasy. As on the night before, Tennessee and I were seated opposite each other at a large round table. Flanking me were people I did not know. I did recognize Elizabeth Ashley, three seats to my left. Brian Bedford, whose name sounded familiar, sat to my right.
We introduced ourselves around the table.
            “Oh, yeah,” Brian said, “Quintero told me about you . . .” He smeared butter on a piece of bread, took a bite, and chewed a moment. “Saw him last week in L.A. Great news—things settling down with Tennessee—glad to hear it.”
            I was elated. Jose Quintero had directed Tennessee’s Clothes for a Summer Hotel on Broadway a year and a half before. In 1952, four years after the disappointing Broadway premiere of Summer and Smoke, Quintero’s Circle in the Square production was a huge success. In the early '60s, he directed the film of The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. Tennessee was still speaking to Quintero, unlike Elia Kazan, who had directed the original stage productions of Streetcar, Cat, and Sweet Bird of Youth—as well as the films of Streetcar and Baby Doll. I had not met either of them, but my spirits soared to know that distant people had heard I was making a difference.
            I hoped Tennessee felt that way. Although I had difficulty conversing with him except on practical matters, I handled everything else well. I also knew reason would not prevail in my relationship with him. He had even fallen out with Audrey Wood, the agent who originally signed him. She had nurtured him to his first success, and represented him through the zenith of his career. But in the late '60s, while in a paranoid fit, he broke with her, accusing her of sabotaging his career.
Then, a year before I met Tennessee, Audrey suffered a severe stroke. Vassilis and Jane tried to convince him to make peace with her, but Tennessee refused, and nearly cut off the two of them for their “disloyalty.”
The waiter refilled my wine glass. Realizing how tense I was once again becoming, I tried to relax. As Tennessee’s assistant, I felt I worked not only for him, but for his friends, colleagues, and even for the public. I worked for the people he thought hated him too—and I had to satisfy myself as well. This was so much more than a job and a paycheck.
I sipped my wine and watched Tennessee sitting across the table, laughing with Elizabeth Ashley—not a care in the world.
            “No thanks,” I said, waving off the wine bottle as it came around yet again. I had had enough.
Milton Goldman stopped at the table. After he spoke with Brian, I got his attention.
            “Have you seen Meryl?” I asked.
            “Yeah.” He pointed toward the Hall of States. “She’s over there—talking to the press. I’ll get her for you.”
            “Oh no . . .” My face reddened and my heart jumped to my throat. I was unprepared for that—Milton pulling Meryl from the press to bring her to me. People would notice that, and what I had to say was private.
“That’s alright. I’ll find her later. Thanks.”
            Had Meryl joined our table, I could never have told her what Tennessee said—not within earshot of him. He was as likely to deny a thing as to admit to it. I had seen him play these games with others, and then watch in amusement as his victims worked through the knot. I wanted to deliver Tennessee’s words because I thought they would mean something to her—but also because I was too self-conscious to say how I felt, myself. This dinner would surely be my last chance to speak to her, but I could not risk Tennessee’s reaction, nor approach her in front of the press. I sat powerless.
People continued to stop at the table to visit. I was congenial, but the evening had begun to drag. A huge weight of tiredness pressed down upon me. Then, after a second cup of coffee, Tennessee wanted to leave. The idea of speaking with Meryl had become hopeless, and I was beginning to lose sight of why it had ever made sense. My turn at the ball was over.
Soon we were in a cab pulling away from the Kennedy Center. In the morning, we would retreat to our life in Key West. I knew the others would return to their lives too, but as I watched the radiance of the arts center recede, I knew the spirit of champagne and chandeliers would follow them wherever they went.


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