by Michael Elihu Colby
Somewhere Between Marilyn Monroe and Liz Taylor
Grandma knew Marilyn Monroe ever since Monroe was married to Joe DiMaggio. Every now and then they’d say hello at events. I only wish I’d been there the day when Grandma ran into Marilyn on Fifth Avenue, around the corner from the Algonquin. Marilyn was wearing a gorgeous full-length white mink. After greeting each other, Grandma remarked, “Marilyn, that’s the most beautiful mink you have on!” Marilyn replied, “You think that’s something, you should see what’s underneath.” She pulled open the mink, and wasn’t wearing anything. Not every kid can claim his grandmother was flashed by Marilyn Monroe.
Grandma’s days were packed with stand-out moments. Actually, most of Grandma’s days were spent packed—period. Anyone entering my grandparents’ apartment would see suitcases packed for a trip. That’s because my grandparents were always planning a trip—they loved to travel. There are photos of Grandma and Grandma boarding the New Amsterdam liner, boarding the Queen Elizabeth, and taking trips alongside such stars as Rossano Brazzi and Rock Hudson—to Grandma’s obvious photographed bliss.
But there was an aspect of traveling that Grandma dreaded. She hated planes and preferred to travel by ship or train. For years, she ingrained that fear in her children and grandchildren. I remember her telling my father if we took a plane to Canada—and were killed in a crash—she’d never speak to him again.
In March 1961, the Bodnes traveled three days by train to California, generously bringing along the whole Colby family. We spent a thrilling month there, mostly in Bungalow 7 of the Beverly Hills Hotel. The sizable Bungalow 7 had room for my grandparents, my immediate family and our housekeeper. It felt as if my parents, my brother Douglas, and I were living the I Love Lucy season where the Ricardos saw the sights of Hollywood with daily guest stars. We were next door to the bungalow of Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher, her husband of the moment who happened to be another Algonquin regular. Down the lane was Marilyn Monroe, whose personal assistant befriended our housekeeper. One day, our housekeeper took Douglas and me along when she visited her new friend in Marilyn’s bungalow. I remember meeting Marilyn’s poodle and glimpsing a bed upon which white minks were piled. That was exciting, but not nearly as exciting as what Grandma Mary once saw underneath one of those minks.
Another highlight, arranged by Grandpa Ben, was for the Colbys to attend the filming of an Orwellian episode of The Twilight Zone: “The Obsolete Man” starring Algonquin regular Burgess Meredith. The episode was about an outlawed librarian executed for believing in God and the value of literature: a dystopian parable ahead of its time. This was way over the head of 10-year old me and 8-year old Douglas—ditto probably my parents—but we were ecstatic watching a Rod Serling script coming to life. You didn’t see anything like that in Hewlett.
Still, this trip’s biggest excitement was yet to come. Our neighbor, Elizabeth Taylor, was up for an Academy Award—for Butterfield 8, a middling movie (starring her and Eddie Fisher) that she reportedly loathed. She was also recovering from a tracheotomy after near fatal pneumonia, contracted on the set of Cleopatra. 1 Probably because of her illness, her sons Michael and Christopher were isolated a few bungalows away from her. Since Douglas and I were similar ages and types to her sons—plus we were right next door—some people mistook Douglas and me for Elizabeth Taylor’s sons. Not that I minded one bit. This may have explained the huge smiles and exceptional service when our housekeeper took me and Douglas anywhere in the hotel.
April 27, 1961 was the apotheosis of our trip, as my parents and grandparents attended the Oscars. There had been lots of fanfare at the Beverly Hills Hotel all week, and now the big night had arrived. Since it was the West Coast, the Oscars were pretty early. I watched the ceremony on TV with Douglas and our housekeeper. I was still up when reporters surrounded Bungalow 7 as Elizabeth Taylor returned to Bungalow 6 after winning the Oscar for Butterfield 8. “I lost to a tracheotomy,” said her close competitor, Shirley MacLaine (nominated for The Apartment, which swept other awards including “Best Picture”). Whatever the case, that evening comprised a picture that will play in my mind forever.
The next week, when my family returned to Long Island, I doubted that anyone at school would believe much about my trip. The details might seem like a fanciful tall tale to classmates at Woodmere Academy. Nonetheless, my Algonquin experiences and theatre knowledge put me in good stead the next Fall at school auditions for our December show, Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado. We of the sixth grade would play the leads—my best opportunity to do a musical since Camp Swago! If I remember correctly, The Mikado was called our “Christmas show.” The description was odd since most of the students were Jewish and many additionally went to Hebrew School. This was especially evident one morning when attendance was taken in French class. While other kids announced “Ici!”, a smart aleck yelled out “Hinani!” (Hebrew for “Here”). Everyone giggled except the teacher.
After having been leading man at Camp Swago, I couldn’t wait to audition for The Mikado. What helped me snag the title role was how well I could affect a Savoyard British accent—especially for a Lawn Guylandah—thanks to years of Algonquin exposure to British guests and musicals like MY FAIR LADY. Doing the show at my school, I for once felt like a big cheese there (living up to the Colby name)—rather than an uncoordinated outsider. The entire cast was spot-on, and The Mikado was a gigantic hit for Woodmere Academy. The show marked two other enduring highlights for me: the Gilbert & Sullivan influence would be prevalent in my 1982 musical Charlotte Sweet; and I established a strong friendship with our drama teacher, Sheila Rubell. “Miss Rubell” was also the drama teacher at my Hebrew School at Temple Beth-El, Cedarhurst, Long Island. That’s where she double-cast me and my brother Douglas as “Mordecai” in a Purim show reworking songs by Gilbert & Sullivan. Douglas and I alternated performances singing a variation of “A Wand’ring Minstrel” with lyrics “A Wand’ring Jew am I,” to which our leading lady sang “And I’m his Cousin Esther.”
I’d rekindle the friendship with Sheila Rubell decades later after I saw her play the lead in an off-Broadway revival of Sylvia Regan’s An American Family, produced by the Folksbeine Yiddish Theater. 2 In time, Sheila even appeared in a musical for which I wrote lyrics, Meester America (book by Jennifer Berman, music by Artie Bressler). We remained close until Sheila Rubell Schertzer passed away, just before she was to appear in another Yiddish themed play.
1961 was in many ways a banner year for the Colbys. For the time being, the friction between my parents had been salved by the glamorous trip to California, as had my father’s relationship with the Bodnes—who treated us so royally in Bungalow 7. There was also the good news that my mother was pregnant with her third child. To boot, I began enjoying an alternate avocation to acting: writing. In contrast to being treated as “the cute kid” at the Algonquin, at school I was a so-so student, lousy at gym, who was called out for his dirty hands and “digging for gold” (i.e. picking my nose). However, I was now being praised for a knack at penning lyrics and poetry, likely developed through years of listening to show albums. My confidence was particularly boosted when I wrote the largest number of poems selected for a Woodmere Academy collection of verse (I came up with the title too, “Chock Full o’ Thoughts”).
Back at the hotel, Dad balanced managerial duties with Uncle Andrew; his friends included such Algonquin regulars as Lilianne Montevecchi and Joel Grey (who honeymooned at the Algonquin with his wife Jo Wilder, and returned for anniversaries thereafter); on a given day, Dad greeted such visitors as Richard Nixon—whose biographer Earl Mazo was Grandma Mary’s cousin (and brother of Sholom Aleichem translator Frances Butwin). At home, Dad found weekend nirvana playing his collection of jazz LP’s, often featuring performers who’d become his pals via the Algonquin: Oscar Peterson, Gerry Mulligan, Carmen McRae, and especially Ella Fitzgerald.
Ella, who made the Algonquin her New York home, was close to everyone in our family. Whenever Grandma Mary was in her audience, Ella improvised lyrics to acknowledge her, such as “Bewitched, Bothered, Mrs. Bodne, am I” or “We’ll have Manhattan, the Bronx, and Mrs. Bodne too.” Ella was the sweetest, most unassuming celebrity, who adored such things as show music, baseball, and—later on—the soap opera All My Children (She’d drop everything when it was on). I remember, when I was older, having breakfast with Ella as she burst into song. She was euphoric—having heard songs from the “new musical Chicago”—singing to me “The name on ev’rybody’s lips is gonna be …Roxie.” It sure beat anything you’d hear on the radio that morning.
A 1961 Broadway hit brought my grandparents special delight. It was written by Jean Kerr, who—alongside her husband critic Walter Kerr—was a longtime friend of my grandparents. Grandma particularly liked the title of Jean Kerr’s comedy: MARY, MARY. Grandpa liked the fact that star Barbara Bel Geddes, playing the recently divorced title lead, would nightly deliver the lines: “Oscar, if the phone rings, it may be for me. … The Algonquin is supposed to call and confirm my room for tonight.” 6
Another memorable 1960s hotel presence—dating back to the late 1930s and original Algonquin Roundtable—was pianist/actor Oscar Levant. Levant was also a renowned composer (“Blame It On My Youth”), a close friend and interpreter of George Gershwin, and the coiner of such witticisms as “I can remember Doris Day before she was a virgin” and “Schizophrenia beats dining alone.” Roundtabler Alexander Woollcott famously said of him: “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Oscar Levant that a miracle can’t fix.”
Two stories about Levant at the Algonquin were reported by columnist Leonard Lyons. One story took place in 1962, when Levant and his wife June dealt with the fact that the hotel had only one full-time passenger elevator (The other elevator was mainly used by staff and room service). Waiting for the elevator, Mrs. Levant complained to a bellhop about the long delay. The bellhop retorted, “Charles Laughton stayed here for twenty-eight years. He spent twenty of them waiting for this elevator.” 5
Lyons’ second item was about how Levant once told a hotel maid, “Please bring me more blankets. You see, I didn’t get much affection when I was a child.” 6
Between Levant’s extra blankets and Noel Coward’s requested extra pillows, the Housekeeping Department could have supplied the Salvation Army.
Another witty couple frequenting the hotel was Henry and Phoebe Ephron, especially during the run of their hit comedy TAKE HER, SHE MINE (1961). Henry, who’d met Phoebe when they were camp counselors, decided “I have ideas—you can type—let’s write a play.” 7 The couple went on to co-create several successful screenplays, and four successful daughters: writers Nora, Delia, Hallie, and Amy Ephron.
And now for a round of connect the dots. Among the stars for whom Henry and Phoebe wrote was my grandmother’s flasher, Marilyn Monroe (There’s No Business Like Show Business). After Oscar Levant and Phoebe Ephron died—their spouses, June Levant and Henry Ephron married each other. Later, Henry Ephron worked with Mary Chase, Jack Urbont, and me on an early draft of the musical Mrs. McThing; June played hostess at some of our meetings. Moreover, she was pivotal in singer Michael Feinstein’s career, introducing him to—and helping him land a job assisting—Ira Gershwin (brother of George Gershwin, who dated my Aunt Syd). Michael Feinstein’s career was further catapulted when my Uncle Andrew Anspach presented him as a performer at the Algonquin’s cabaret, the Oak Room. Michael F. also recorded one of the songs on a CD of my lyrics, Quel Fromage. These scattered associations—from Marilyn Monroe to Elizabeth Taylor to Ella Fitzgerald—made me feel like Zelig or Forrest Gump or a minor-league Kevin Bacon, a few degrees apart. But, of course, my experiences paled in comparison with those of my grandparents, Ben and Mary Bodne, at their historical Algonquin Hotel. They seemed to know everyone.
Next: Part 6 in the Series: Could Jed Clampett be Jewish?
1 Seymour, Gene. Special to CNN: “Elizabeth Taylor: ‘The Last Star’”. http://www.cnn.com/2011/OPINION/03/23/seymour.elizabeth.liz.taylor/. March 23, 2011.
2 “Butterfield Eight (1960)” from The Hollywood Review, July 7, 2010: http://hollywoodrevue.wordpress.com/2010/07/07/butterfield-8-1960/
3 Van Gelder, Lawrence. “Theater Review; A Poignant Slice of Lives Restarted” in N.Y. Times, New York: http://www.nytimes.com/2000/12/16/theater/theater-review-a-poignant-slice-of-lives-restarted.html. December 16, 2000.
4 Lyons. Jeffrey. Stories My Father Told Me: Notes From “The Lyons Den”. New York: Abbeville Press, June 2011.
5 Lyons. Jeffrey. Ibid.
6 Kerr, Jean. Mary, Mary. New York: Dramatists Play Service Inc., 1961.
7 Hagan, Agnes. “Canton Women’s Club hosts illustrious author Hallie Ephron.” Wicked Local Canton, Canton OH: http://www.wickedlocal.com/canton/news/x1275637358/Canton-Womens-Club-hosts-illustrious-author-Hallie-Ephron?zc_p=0. October 30, 2013.
*No copyright Infringement Intended. For Entertainment Purposes Only.
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