Tuesday, December 05, 2006

My Favorite Ghost

My Dad has been on my mind lately, a pervasive spirit, looking over my shoulder when I drink an India ale or eat a Hagen Daz bar, nodding when I cut a redundant sentence out of a paragraph, shaking his head as I fall for a corny Rocky trailer. He hated lower class kitchen sink dramas; he’d walk out of a play if he saw a refrigerator on stage. I was thinking today about the officious accountant who handled Dad’s estate, telling me that I was treating my inheritance irresponsibly, by actually spending some of it. At the time, I had felt like telling him that the feckless child he was chastising was in fact putting two kids through college and had been running his own business for more than a decade. But after a good early morning writing session, I realized there was something far more important to say: that these words on paper, and the furtive, almost criminal satisfaction I took in making up lies about non-existent people -- those were my real inheritance, my true patrimony, and he would never understand it and it would never run out. It would have sounded petty, saying it to the guy.

Realizing it on the beach this morning, all I felt was grateful.

I was glancing through Paranoid, the other day. When Dad cut it, he added transitions and pieces of dialogue. For instance: the President’s wife, son and possible daughter-in-law watch him striding towards the Naval helicopter in a blue suit, with his red tie snapping in the wind, and the girl says to the First Lady: “Don’t Presidents ever wear overcoats?” I had forgotten that one. The jolt of seeing it again isn't exactly communion with the dead; maybe it's just a nod, or a glass lifted for a toast: “Here’s to you, Pop, for sticking around after the formal eviction, doing a quick rewrite and still throwing those great parties in the back of my head.” Sound morbid? It isn’t.

Ghosts make good company. The horror writers never mention that.

Anyway, here’s the eulogy I memorized to deliver “extemporaneously” at his memorial service. It went over well – I killed. He would have approved. The piece is short -- just a hint of who he was: like the menu posted outside a four star restaurant or a photograph of the Grand Canyon.

But it’s better than nothing.

I’ll be brief because that’s how Dad liked it. He had a rule at dinner. Everyone wanted to tell the story of the book or comic book they had just read, or the movie or TV show they had just seen. That was fine, as long as they could do it in three sentences. It was great – all you’d hear for minutes at a time was the sound of grinding teeth as various kids tried to boil down a Star Trek episode, or Lawrence of Arabia … or Moby Dick into three sentences. You could almost hear them: “OK – there’s this whale … no. There’s this guy who was chasing the whale … no, wait …”

It was okay. You were better off listening at that table, anyway.

You could learn a lot at dinner; sometimes meals turned into informal writing seminars. My Dad loved verbs, and he hated adjectives. Once he challenged me to describe something we were eating, some little meat pastry. I said it was flaky and savory and delicious. Three adjectives: no good. He used two nouns and a verb: “calories, lashed together with garlic.” He taught me Logan’s Law: [The theatre director Josh Logan was a great mentor for him and one of his best friends for more than thirty years] “A hit movie or play is a series of scenes culminating in a final scene through which the hero learns something about himself, always emotionally and always for the better. “ And it’s true – from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Rocky to The Lord of the Rings. Dad said a great thing about cutting once that always stuck with me. “You turn the story upside down and shake it. All the loose stuff falls out.”

He was always proud that he put a phrase into the language with the title of The Seven Year Itch. But he put a lot more phrases than that into my language. To this day I can’t look at a fattening dessert without hearing him saying “..and the best part is … it tears the weight off you.” I can’t sit looking at a blank page without his credo coming to mind: “Will write, if cornered.” I looked at the airline meal on the flight out here, and heard him say “Toy food.” And as for the word ‘totter’, they should just retire it from the language now that he’s gone, the way they retired Wayne Gretzky’s number when he quit playing hockey.

Dad could be a tough audience. I’ll never forget watching a young comedian trying his act on him one Sunday at lunch. Dad just sat there saying, “Good. That’s funny.” But he never even cracked a smile. Finally the comic got exasperated and said “Don’t you ever just laugh?” Dad shrugged. “No,” he said. “But don’t feel bad. My eyes are twinkling merrily.”

I wrote a suspense novel and asked him to cut it. He took more than a third of it out. He said, “You were writing a thriller. I took out everything that wasn’t thrilling.” Then he shrugged and said, “I could cut a minute thirty from the book of Genesis if I really had to.” The edit was a huge job and a lot of work, taken from his own busy schedule. But the gesture was typically generous. My friends and I often heard him ask, “How much money would change your life?” If you thought about it and told him, he’d give it to you. It didn’t always take much. One night when my friend Stephen Salinger was broke and waiting on tables at Ma Maison, my Dad tipped him a hundred dollars. It did the trick; Stephen never forgot that night. Dad once ordered a bottle of Mouton Rothschild ’59 in the Oak Room at the Plaza, just to show me what great wine tasted like. When he knew I needed it desperately, he swept me off to London for my senior year of High School … and thirty two years later, it’s still the best year of my life. I learned much more from him than I did in school – antiquing on the Portobello road, or at the Turner show at the Tate. He had to drag me out to see the Noel Coward tribute at the British Film Institute. Hey, I was seventeen. It was a great night as well as Coward’s last public appearance ever.

It’s strange, standing in this house without Dad and Joanie here. Not even this house exactly… there have been so many over the years. This is just the most recent one. All of them, from 1018 Benedict Canyon to 301 N. Carolwood, from 56 Chester Square to Malibu to Lloydcrest Drive, all had the same spirit. And most of them had the same bar. I got drunk for the first time in my life at that bar. And I don’t think I’m the only one. Anyway … for most my life these houses have been like the world capital of wit and sophistication. I used to judge people by how well they’d fit in at those Sunday lunches. Not many people measured up to that standard. If any of these houses are haunted, there are going to be some great parties going on, with some very classy ghosts.

Dad was a wonderful host, but he was cripplingly shy.
He was full of contradictions, mostly between the cynical things he said and the big-hearted way he lived. He used to say there was no one as tedious as a reformed drunk. But he was one himself for the better part of two decades with no loss of charm or style. An English magazine once asked him to comment on the phrase “All the world loves a lover.” He said, “Funny you should ask. Right now my son is love, my daughter is in love, my cook is in love, my secretary is in love, even the man who picks up my trash is in love. They stand under my window all night long, baying about it. So in response to your question, I would have to say that all the world does not love a lover. In fact all the world is bored to tears by a lover.”

This from a man who was married – with a one short break – to the same woman for more than fifty years. He had nothing against love. He just couldn’t take it seriously.

If there is a heaven, and I know he didn’t believe in that stuff, I can picture him at Ma Maison (The number is still unlisted), St. Peter bringing a bottle of white wine to the table instantly. Dad is ordering lunch – that was his specialty just like Patrick O’Neal’s character in Secret Life. There are some old friends around the table. Maybe he’s even pausing between courses, looking down on this gathering today, listening to my little speech. Not laughing, of course. But maybe his eyes are twinkling merrily.

Right now, I’d be happy to settle for that.


Anonymous said...

lovely, stevie...

Stephen said...

This brings back many memories--- and a warm smile. Nice to know that you have inherited his talent. Quite a legacy. Spend it frivolously. Like the 100 bucks he gave me.