by Michael Elihu Colby
Part 14: Moving Days
It was June, 1969: a time for me to say goodbye to Woodmere Academy and hello to my college years (outside of New York). You’d think that would mean I’d see less of the Algonquin, but just the opposite would prove true.
I hadn’t been the best student but was accepted at a few colleges, deciding to attend American University in Washington DC. Grandma Mary was particularly pleased because A.U. was close enough for me to take the Amtrak rather than fly; yet far enough away so that I wouldn’t drive (Early on, my driving had even prompted my Driver’s Ed instructor to grab the keys and walk away from the school car in frustration). No matter what form of transportation I took, I had to report to both my Mother and Grandmother I’d arrived safely. My family kept close tabs on all my travels: I had to secretly take my first New York subway ride—at the age of 16 with my experienced classmate Sam Hagan—telling Grandma Mary it was a taxi ride.
Another bonus of attending school in Washington DC was that I could spend time with my father Sidney, who was doing everything he could to manage a troubled local hotel. Months earlier, I’d visited him there—with my mother and brother Douglas. The highlight of that trip was attending the tryout of a new musical everyone loved—1776. Of course, I had no idea that my first professional theatre experience—five years later—would be working for its producer, Stuart Ostrow (Pippin, The Apple Tree). That Fall, I spent a good deal of prized time visiting my father at the hotel he managed. This particular hotel seemed a bit rundown, and the food tasted like TV dinner still unthawed. But I kept that to myself and stuck to salads (sometimes literally) when my Dad said I could order all I wanted. During our conversations, I was reminded of the happier times we’d spent together. How, when I was 10, he’d record me singing along to tracks of Frank Sinatra and Doris Day on his extensive, reel-to-reel taping equipment. The laughs we had when he took Douglas and me every summer to Rockaway Playland—with its Fun House, Hall of Mirrors, and Penny Arcade. The drives to NYC when he’d always listen to William B. Williams playing Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, and other favorites on WNEW radio. Going with him, at an early age, to hear the likes of Peggy Lee and the Supremes—live. He’d been so handsome and vital once, it was heartbreaking to see him looking a bit bloated, his hands shaking when he held a coffee cup. But, at least around me, he wasn’t drinking.
Back at American University—for the very first time—I started excelling as a student. A.U. wasn’t as competitive as Woodmere Academy, and I wasn’t distracted by fights at home anymore. Furthermore, there was abundant excitement on-campus. I’d see fascinating on-stage drama like the production of a great playwright who was new to me: Lanford Wilson. His future play, Talley’s Folly, would receive the N.Y. Drama Critics Award at the Algonquin. American U. adventurously presented Wilson’s The Madness of Lady Bright, whose transvestite title role was played by student Ernest Thompson, himself the future playwright of the stage and film hit, On Golden Pond. Likewise, there was real-life drama on-campus and throughout Washington D.C.—especially political protests during this school year overcast by the Vietnam War.
The academic stimulation at A.U. was a turning point for me. I was taught by my all-time favorite English teacher, Mrs. Patton, who believed in me more than any previous teacher. Wearing 1960s horn-rimmed glasses, Mrs. Patton looked like a cross between TV’s Eve Arden on Our Miss Brooks and Jane Wyatt on Father Knows Best. Even when I thought I’d messed up her test, she pointed out how well I’d done—quoting my answers to our class. My scholastic insecurities took a hike. I may not have used drugs or alcohol in college, but I became intoxicated with English poetry. Mrs. Patton turned me on to Romantic and Victorian poetry. Soon I understood why Robert Browning was reportedly Cole Porter’s favorite poet, as Browning became mine too. Browning’s work burst with intricate rhyme and psychological depth comparable to what I’d later admire in the lyrics of Lorenz Hart and Stephen Sondheim. Browning packed his poems with such rhyming invention long before Hart juxtaposed “Dietrich” and “sweet trick”1 or Sondheim paired “It’s so/Schizo.”2 In Browning’s “The Glove” alone, there was “foremost” and “adore most,” “well swear”/”elsewhere” and “fresh hold”/”threshold”.3 In addition, one century before Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, Browning was writing sophisticated character studies in the poem “Rabbi Ben Ezra” (“Grow old with me/The best is yet to be”4) and the soliloquy, “Porphyria’s Lover,” whose ending of a deranged lover strangling his sweetheart is as complex and haunting as lyrics from Sweeney Todd:
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good. I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around. 5
Years later, my reverence for Robert Browning was an immediate source of bonding between me and actress/composer Polly Pen, who graced my show Charlotte Sweet and is a descendant of the poet’s wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Other major poems I first read in Mrs. Patton’s class included Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” (whose isolated tapestry-maker would inspire the song “A-Weaving” in Charlotte Sweet) and Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” which Polly Pen would one day adapt into an acclaimed off-Broadway musical.
After my exhilarating Fall semester at American University, my morale took an unfortunate Southward slip when I returned home to Paine Road, Hewlett on my December break. Feeling left behind by my father, my mother was in an especially sullen mood. Once I arrived home late and tired, we got into an argument escalating into a screaming match. After the quiet semester at college, I realized screaming was not a requisite of everyday life. I became so upset I took the ten-minute walk to our Hewlett station, caught the 1:00 AM train to New York, and ambled through the darkness to the Algonquin. There, a groggy Grandma Mary said I could stay for the night, and even longer if I wished. That’s all I needed to hear. On that night I actually moved from Long Island to one of the guest rooms at the Algonquin, making the hotel my permanent residence for the next 17 years. Sometimes family fights can have their compensations.
I’d been seeing a lot of my grandparents anyway. The Bodnes had taken me—along with my brother Douglas—on a four-city summer tour, months earlier, as my high school graduation present. Our first stop was New Orleans, where my grandparents’ closest friends, attorney-author Louis Nizer and his wife Mildred, joined us. I remember how we all sat around the TV in a hotel suite watching history in the making—the original moon landing—with Grandma Mary expressing (perhaps in jest) that the event might mess up the universe. New Orleans was capped by a series of sumptuous meals, especially at Galatoire’s, the restaurant mentioned in A Streetcar Named Desire. There, either Grandpa or Mr. Nizer arranged for a private room and a Southern dinner that would have put Paula Dean to shame. Mr. Nizer arranged quite a few memorable experiences in my life, such as the time he invited my grandparents—along with Douglas and me—to observe him at the Supreme Court defending the 1971 movie Carnal Knowledge against obscenity charges. As usual, he won the case.
Another observation made by intimates of Mr. Nizer was that no tablecloth or linen was safe in his presence. Seated at a table, he would take out a Magic Marker and sketch anyone in view, ruining countless cloth napkins at the Algonquin and elsewhere. My family had quite a collection of Nizer portraits they thought might be valuable one day, varying in quality and often with food stains (more like shrouds of tureen than the Shroud of Turin).
After bidding farewell to the Nizers and N’Orleans, our four-city tour continued in Dallas, Las Vegas (where we saw the razzle-dazzle Vegas shows of Petula Clark and Barbra Streisand), and finally Beverly Hills. The Bodnes and Colby boys were back at the Beverly Hills Hotel, now sharing a suite and poolside cabana. We got a special deal there since Grandpa was friends with its owner, another Jewish hotelier named Ben: Ben Silverstein. This hotel boasted even more celebrities than you’d see at the Algonquin. At the pool, our cabana neighbors were producer/publicist Irving Mansfield and his wife, novelist Jacqueline Susann. Susann was at the pinnacle of best-selling popularity with her sex and drug-filled page-turners, Valley of the Dolls and The Love Machine. Deeply tanned, with a full raven coif, and statuesquely parading a tiger-skinned bathing suit, she looked to me like she was just about to make a jungle movie. I remember her raving about the hotel’s foot-long frankfurters, which she called “the wild thing.” I also recall her profound sadness the day the news arrived that Sharon Tate, who’d starred in the film Valley of the Dolls, had been killed by the Manson gang (August 8, 1969).
During our week in Beverly Hills, the poolside was also where Douglas and I would page made-up names, guess whose faces were lifted, and hang out with a 16-year old New York girl, Leslie Sank, who idolized actress Barbara Stanwyck. Leslie had memorized whole scenes from Stanwyck movies and soon had me reciting dialogue from Sorry, Wrong Number (still embedded in my memory today): “They said you were a criminal, Henry. A desperate man. And said you wanted me to… to DIE.” 6
The Stanwyck veneration led, unexpectedly, to an evening wherein I was able to acquire a Stanwyck memento for Leslie at the Hollywood restaurant, Chasen’s. My grandparents had taken Douglas and me to Chasen’s on one of many nights when Barbara Stanwyck regularly dined there. She was accompanied by Detroit gossip columnist, Shirley Eder, who happened to be a relative of Charles Abramson, the agent/producer and family friend I called “Uncle Charlie.” My grandparents spotted Shirley and immediately said hello to her (I, myself, wondered whether Ms. Eder’s nephews and nieces called her “Aunt Eder”). As if out of a movie, Shirley and Barbara Stanwyck joined us at our table for dessert. Stanwyck talked about how radically Hollywood had changed, about how much she missed her ex-husband Robert Taylor (who had recently died), and about the Jewish foster parents she’d had as a child. When coffee was served, she reached for a cigarette, whereupon I grabbed a match at our table and lit it (In those days, there were matches at all the tables). After the euphoria of lighting Stanwyck’s cigarette, I put the match away in my pocket and gave it to Leslie the next day. I knew Leslie would want the match that had served Stanwyck so well; and I was right—Leslie held onto it like a lucky charm. Years later, when a thief stole her wallet, Leslie was especially upset that the match was inside, lost forever.
It turned out that Chasen’s was the restaurant we visited most frequently during our trip (which was fine with me: I could live on their super-creamy banana cake and Caesar Salads—the best ever—cholesterol shock and all). The owner, former vaudevillian Dave Chasen (born in Odessa, Ukraine, like Grandma Mary) was another good friend of my grandparents—who, with his elegant wife Maude, stayed at the Algonquin. He was so fond of the hotel, he kept a framed photo of it on display at his restaurant, right near a picture of W.C. Fields dressed as Queen Victoria. Chasen began his restaurant after receiving a loan of $3,500 from The New Yorker editor, Harold Ross, based on the delectable chili and ribs Chasen would cook up for Algonquin Round Tablers like Dorothy Parker and Benchley.7 It was at Chasen’s Restaurant where Dave Chasen invented the “Shirley Temple” cocktail as a special treat for the child star. It was there that Ronald Reagan proposed to Nancy Davis. Stars such as Frank Sinatra and Groucho Marx had their own booths there.8 Moreover, Chasen’s chili was so prized, Elizabeth Taylor ordered buckets of it over in Europe when she filmed Cleopatra. 9
On a second evening at Chasen’s, Mr. Chasen took us back to his office just as Jackie Gleason phoned him to announce his engagement to second wife Beverly McKittrick. Another night, Mr. Chasen—out of his love for my family—circulated around the restaurant asking guests to sign autograph books for Douglas and me. Among signees, all eating there on a single night, were Art Carney, Ralph Edwards, Alfred Hitchcock, George Jessel, Boris Karloff, Robert Mitchum, Rod Steiger, and James Stewart. Regrettably, after Dave and Maude Chasen passed away, this legendary restaurant closed its doors in 1995. Tinseltown will never see its likes again.
Meanwhile, there was more unhappy news in my family. While I was flourishing academically and taking grand trips, my father Sidney was struggling. The job in Washington D.C. had not worked out. He was back in New York—unemployed and exuding defeat—returning to my mother and Paine Road. My grandparents, who’d been antagonistic toward Dad, did an about-face and welcomed him back as an Algonquin manager. Grandma felt particularly bad for him. In turn, my father did everything he could to reconcile and make up for lost time with the family. But nothing could reverse what was happening. Foremost he was in terrible shape. His emotional vulnerability was compounded by the long-term effects of alcohol and smoking. At home he would sleep through weekends and experienced delirium tremens. His hallucinations included his imagining a lamp was a huge snake, whereupon he momentarily went after it with a baseball bat. Then came the worst night the Colby family had ever gone through.
I was in my Algonquin Room in New York when I received the phone call from Douglas. Our parents had been arguing at home. I don’t know if Dad had been drinking or was just in bad shape to begin with. But Douglas reported the awful news: Dad had taken a bad fall down the second-floor stairs at home. At the bottom, he lay unconscious on the white linoleum floor, a puddle of blood surrounding his head. An ambulance arrived and rushed him from Long Island to New York University Hospital where my father received brain surgery to relieve a subdural hematoma.
Upon Douglas’ call, I hurried to the hospital and joined the family to wait through the surgery, which ended very late. My mother was hysterical in disbelief. Grandpa Ben and Grandma Mary were notified in Italy, where they’d been taking a trip; they booked the next flight to New York. Around midnight, I was ushered in to see my father, his head shaved after surgery. It was the last time I’d see him—he passed away that night, August 31, 1970. He was 43 years old.
I’ve often wondered how much longer my father might have lived if not for the repercussions of his marriage and working at the Algonquin. The fantasy Algonquin life had a very dark underside for him—a tragic fact I can never forget. Notwithstanding, I’ll always be grateful for being in Washington D.C. that last year and the deeply moving days I had with him in D.C. and through the years. When I visit the Algonquin nowadays, I still imagine him in the lobby—his youthful self—looking like he could be one of the stars staying there. Of all the ghosts I’ve envisioned at the hotel, I never imagined my young father would be one. Life at the Algonquin, though it went on, would never really be the same.
Next part: Excelsior
1 Hart, Larry. Lyric to “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” from the musical Jumbo (music: Richard Rodgers) © 1935.
2 Sondheim, Stephen. Lyric to “Uptown, Downtown” cut from the musical Follies (music: Stephen Sondheim) © 1971; used in Marry Me a Little (1980).
3 Browning, Robert. “The Glove” (1845) in The Literature of England: An Anthology and a History. Volume Two, Fifth Edition. Ed. George K. Anderson and William E. Buckler. Glenview IL: Scott, Forseman and Company. 1968.
4 Browning, Robert. “Rabbi Ben Ezra” (1864) in The Literature of England: An Anthology and a History. Ibid.
5 Browning, Robert. “Porphyria’s Lover” (1834; 1836) in The Literature of England: An Anthology and a History. Ibid.
6 Fletcher, Lucille. Sorry, Wrong Number (screenplay) based on the radio play by Lucille Fletcher. Paramount Pictures, United States. September 1, 1948 (release date).
7 “Maude Chasen Dies at 97; Fed the Legends of Hollywood” from Obituary section, L.A. Online, December 12, 2001.
9 Edwards, Bobb. “Dave Chasen” from ”Find a Grave” website. March 4, 2000: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=8696.
© 2014, Michael Colby
*No copyright Infringement Intended. For Entertainment Purposes Only.
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