Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Looking Back at Love

"Have you ever been in love?"

A simple enough question, I guess, yes or no. Yet when I man I'd met on an online dating service asked me I was stumped for an answer.

I had never been asked that question before. I've been married three times and was what I would have called in love with all of them at the time we tied the knot. The man asking the question had been married once, for nearly 40 years, to one woman, and had been at her side every day as she suffered from Alzheimer's until she died. That was what he meant by love, and I was not one to argue. It is the stuff fairy tales are made of, and rom-coms from Hollywood, and probably a large percentage of the fiction we read. Happily ever after, and then you close the book and never ask what happens next.

It looks so easy when other people do it, but on the other hand there are many of us who struggle with the concept for our whole lives. It would be so pleasant to have a partner for life, someone to banter with over coffee every morning, some to care for us, observe our triumphs, soothe us through difficulties, be in love with us forever. In my experience marriage itself had something to do with the loss of that "in love" feeling--time, familiarity, a growing awareness of the reality of the other and knowledge that he had the same awareness of you. My dating friend told me that he had been his wife's whole world through their marriage, and in my eyes she was fortunate that he never abused that devotion. He is a wise and courageous person. How do I, who lived a rootless, sometimes reckless, often self-centered, and always questing and questioning existence, respond to a person so sincere, so profound in his conventionality? All I could say was "I've had a different sort of life."

He chooses to believe that my last husband, whom I was with for 25 years and who died of cirhossis of the liver, was the love of my life. I would not say that. So I look back--was there a love of my life at all, or am I still seeking him? There were passionate affairs, complex adjustments, and there was a layer of love over all, but is there one person I would characterize as the love of my life?

To most people, this seems to be so easy. You are young, you fall in love, you commit for life, and the two of you suffer and grow together through life's highs and lows. You find ways to keep the illusion alive--the illusion that it is the same for always, that the magic hasn't paled or altered over time. I'm trying not to be judgmental here, so I must assume that in most cases it is not an illusion at all.

But the question came from an intimate friend, a man I respected. How to break it to him, what my life has been, how different the experience of love itself has been from my family of origin on. It's too much to answer lightly. I was in love, but I was in another world. and I don't mean the soap opera either. I was in "The Guiding Light," and in "The Edge of Night," but when I was in love I was in another world. Something inside tells me I haven't found the big one yet, or that I didn't know it when I saw it, but that there is still a chance. Every birthday that comes around makes that happenstance less of a possibility. I have learned to love myself in a broader way as time passes, to go through my days cherishing myself if possible as much as a lover would, and to be open in case something or someone comes along who would be that joyous companion for the rest of my days.

Yes, I have been in love. But probably not the way you mean.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Way We Thought We Were

A friend of mine once explained his breakup with a beautiful young woman from Iowa, "She saw the movie Annie Hall when she was a teenager and decided then and there she was going to be like Annie Hall and move to New York and seduce a witty Jewish guy like Woody Allen. After she moved in she discovered I was Jewish only on my father's side and was no Woody Allen. It was all downhill after that."

In the early days of the Internet I got interested in chat rooms. Now, of course, I use Facebook as a virtual time sink for semi-personal relations, but back then I had a lot of fun in a chat room of my own I called The Algonquin Round Table. I had fancied that the name would attract wits and wags from all over the country who knew about Dorothy Parker and the denizens of the so-called round table of the 1920s. For the better part of a year I kept it going, but I all too often I had to explain what the original round table was and try to keep the conversational patter at a level that would invite wisecracks and witty comments. People did come in as alter egos and one young woman dubbed herself Holly Golightly (I know it's the wrong period, but she was allowed it in the spirit of the game. She had seen the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's and obviously it struck a chord with her). 

To make this long story short, she attracted one of the young men in my vicious circle so much that one weekend he hopped a plane from Denver, where he lived, to meet her in Seattle, where she lived. The visit was a fiasco. I don't know the details, but I suspect he was expecting Audrey Hepburn to greet him as much as she expected George Peppard to step off that plane.

Leslie Caron in Lili
Maybe it's common for adolescent girls to latch on to a particular image of someone they see in the movies to define their expectations of the next phase of their life. What then, I asked myself, did I see myself as? The answer came to me right away.

I was Leslie Caron as Lili, naive, hopeful, a little tacky, but oh so charming and elfin and young, young, young, like a kindergartner let loose among the grownups and choosing to play with the puppets. I loved that movie. I remember bawling out loud at it. I think I was it. A few years later I saw Federico Fellini's La Strada, a better movie with a more rounded picture of the young woman I thought I was at that time, played magnificently by Guillieta Masini. That haunting innocent character has stayed with me as I outgrew and outclassed her over the years, but when it came to choosing a costume for a movie party in Rosendale last fall, I dressed as her and felt more liberated than I could remember ever having felt.
Gelsomina, La Strada (Giulietta Masini)

 I can't say exactly why I identified so much with the naifs in those pictures, as I made the transition to adulthood, but I still adore them both and would love to have played them--but I would not have loved to be either one of them. I thought I was seeing myself.

Me as Gelsomina, Rosendale NY, 2014

Teenagers have fantasies, or at least some of them do. Do you know who you thought you were? Ever have a fantasy of what you'd be?  How did that work out?

Monday, February 16, 2015

My Alter Ego

This is how I think I am...

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a movie star. I was in a few amateur theatre productions, and I wanted to major in theatre when I left for college. I had many adventures in the theatre department, played some good roles, and always imagined I was going to make it either in the movies or onstage. My first husband joined me in this fantasy, as we planned to capitalize on my talent and both be famous one day. His dream was to be an opera impresario--I didn't know what that was, but it sounded good to me.

My name would have to go. I tossed around a number of stage names--one of them I liked was Robin Graham. Graham was my mother's maiden name and is my brother's first name. Mary Lois Timbes was cumbersome and didn't have the right ring to it.

Lately I've thought what-if. What if I had taken the name of Robin Graham, not married early, not had a baby at the age of 22, not taken the turns I did in life. What would have become of Robin Graham, the movie star?

For one thing, she would have lived in California. She would have worked with actors in her age group--Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Sam Waterston, Jack Nicholson, Susan Sarandan. She would have learned acting with strict teachers, shed some of her inhibitions, stopped biting her fingernails, taken voice training, and learned to sing. She would have been coached on how to sit for photographs so she would not always looked strained and awkward in snapshots. She would have had a first-rate shrink or two.  She never would have gotten the least bit fat. She would have exercised regularly and eaten minimally. She would weigh about 30 pounds less than I do at this point.  By now she probably would have had work done on her face and maybe her body. She would know how to enter a room in an unforgettable way.

But. She never would have had that extraordinary daughter that Mary Lois Timbes got. She wouldn't have lived in Geneva for six years as wife of the head of public affairs and advertising of DuPont Europe.  She wouldn't have started two theatre companies and written three books. She wouldn't have two strapping, good-looking grandsons with potential to do everything. Whatever Robin Graham's fun-filled life would have been, it wouldn't have been as rewarding as the one Mary Lois Timbes Woods Vann Adshead has had.

I've decided to keep Robin Graham alive in my imagination, however. I like thinking about her. Then one day recently on Facebook somebody posted the picture above, with my face photoshopped on a publicity still from Into the Woods. The slim young waist with its cheerful head made me instantly happy. It's what Robin Graham would look like. It's what I think I look like.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Dying of the Light

A Recent Picture
Some people live with us forever. We think of them often, and we regard them as vital, dynamic, swirling about in their own lives, on top of their problems and at the top of their game. We know there are ups and downs, but, because of their resilience and resourcefulness, they live in our imaginations as always charging upward.

Such a man was Mort Gordon, who hired me for my first job in New York City, a young woman with a smattering of newspaper experience, hoping to crack the city one way or another.  It was with great sorrow that I learned of his death Friday at the age of 87. His was a strong and happy spirit, and he was a light in the lives of many who knew and worked with him. I had not seen him in over 40 years, but he remains as vivid to me anyone I've ever known.

Mort was one of the co-editors of a trade newspaper, and I was to be secretary and editorial assistant to him and Herb Blueweiss. Mort was tall, breezy, sexy--and Herb was short, balding, bookish, and somewhat enigmatic. The two were close friends, symbiotic in their mutual admiration, and together they created an atmosphere of casual competence in the newsroom. The company was Fairchild Publications and the newspaper was a men's wear and textile industry outlet called Daily News Record.

Mort was a good editor and a gentle guy with people; he was the one we’d take our stories to if we had a problem.
Exactly as I remember him
He cut a wide swath through his segment of the men's wear industry--furnishings--meaning shirts, ties, and accessories. He was liked by the staff who worked for him and the men and women in the industry he wrote about, because of his big personality and his sincerity with people.

Fairchild was housed in two buildings, back to back. The front door was at 7 East 12th Street, an entrance into a modern if characterless building where the sleeker publications were produced. A plain lobby housed a front desk and a bank of three elevators. If you took this elevator to the third floor you were in the world of Women’s Wear Daily, full of chicly dressed young women at desks with typewriters, reporting on the future of hemlines, and a few hapless males writing about the business side of the women’s fashion industry.

If you were going to the Daily News Record office, you had to make a trek through these desks on past the fey characters of the art department on the right and through a passageway to the back building. This structure was decidedly old, housing some geezers who wrote columns called “Words at Random,” and “Cotton Grey Goods,” as well as some serious guys discussing such topics as the necktie market, textile machinery, the staying power of the “mod” fashion in the youth market. You would also see a passel of merry pranksters looking for their next big journalism break. As a secretary, I fit cozily into that latter category.

You could also enter DNR the back way, up the stairs or in the creaky old elevator in the shabby 13th Street building. At that end of the room were the financial desk, the legal reporters, and a smattering of other market desks.

I worked at DNR off and on for some six years from the mid-60’s until the early 70’s when I left for good for the greener pastures of public relations, but I left having made the acquaintance of some of the most interesting characters of my life, and having made some friends I still see today. There is a surreal quality to my memories of the place. Every reporter, every editor, even the copy kids—all were distinct in his or her view of their employment. They took their work with a grain of salt, but basically performed it well. It took some doing for an incipient novelist to call on the little knitting mills producing men’s sweaters and report the company’s financial and marketing plans. Mort Gordon was responsible in no small for the tone of the place--he managed us all in the best sense of the word.

A native of Philadelphia, Gordon graduated from Temple University with a B.S. in journalism. After service in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, he returned to Philadelphia went to work as a reporter in Fairchild’s Philadelphia bureau. He was a born salesman, and soon moved up the ranks at Fairchild to become publisher of Men's Wear Magazine, a prestigious industry publication. After he left Fairchild he had a long career in the business of licensing men's wear products.

Mort had suffered from pancreatic cancer, and yet he kept his upbeat attitude until the end, still playing tennis and probably flirting with the nurses. I'll always think of how happy I felt when he'd stream into the newsroom, always nattily dressed, usually with just the right amount of a light cologne, a ready laugh, and a good word.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Movie Moments That Changed the World

Clark Gable didn't wear an undershirt. After this, nobody else did either.

Sometimes you see a movie and get a look at a face you'll never forget, or a style you've never seen before, or hear a casual wisecrack that gets everybody repeating it. Next thing you know, the world has changed.

It's said that happened when Clark Gable took off his shirt in It Happened One Night in 1933. It was not meant to be a high point in the movie, but there he was, baring it all to madcap heiress Claudette Colbert (or at least, all from the rather-high waist up) while she looked coolly on. The audience got a little thrill seeing that Gable didn't wear undershirts, those chaste tank-tops all the world wore in the 1930s. (Interesting--undershirts today cover more.)

Sales of undershirts immediately dropped by 75%. Or did they? Was there any coverage of this phenomenon in the day? Or is it just an urban legend that everybody believes because they kinda want to believe it? Snopes has reported that it is unverifiable and suggests it is probably not true. I would say it may not literally be true, but I wouldn't be surprised if Gable didn't start men thinking that if they didn't wear undershirts every day the earth would not stop on its axis.
Marlon Brando's torn t-shirt
I think it turned men away from those Esplanade t-shirts (as we called them in New Orleans) until years later when Brando brought back the undershirt, this time the kind a gal could rip off with her fingernails.

Brando had more than one movie moment that changed everything, but here's a wee one to ponder. In The Wild One, one of the guys calls to him, just his name, Johnny, and his line was, "Yeah?" Brando improvised. Instead of the line as written he said, "Yo?" He probably wasn't the first guy to say that, but it was in character, and it started everybody saying yo instead of yeah. Sometimes at least. Just ask Sylvester Stallone.

In 1969 Easy Rider took us by storm. Probably to the surprise of Peter Fonda, who thought he was making a movie about himself, and Dennis Hopper, who likely expected to be the be the breakout star of the film, all the critics and all the audience came away in love with a totally different guy. His name was Jack Nicholson, and his antic cockiness, his ebullient embrace of wackiness--and the evening around the campfire, when controlled substances were served up for the first time in a major motion picture--won us to a new and major talent. He didn't start any fashion trends, but we couldn't wait to see him do more movies. Which he did. 
The easiest rider of all, Jack Nicholson
Diane Keaton made Annie Hall a star. Or vice versa.

The look that changed the way women dressed for a decade came when we got one look at Diane Keaton in Annie Hall in 1975. Keaton had made a few traditional movies but in this one she was given free rein by her director, Woody Allen, who wanted to showcase her own style and personality. She has said she wanted to look like Cary Grant, but on her the look came out different. And it was new, all right. It was cute, it was fresh, it was wearable, but it was a little bit crazy too.

There was a movie moment in California Suite, a Neil Simon collage of one-acts woven into a popular movie in 1979, that changed women of a certain age forever. It was the scene between Alan Alda and Jane Fonda that takes place on a California beach. Fonda is wearing a borrowed bikini and prancing around the beach looking like a voluptuous sylph. She was in her early 40s and she looked about 25. The role she was playing was a sophisticated, witty, chain-smoking divorcée, arguing with her ex-husband (Alda) about custody of their college-age daughter, and there she was looking gorgeous and sexy enough to make us all forget about her war protests (not that I ever minded them anyway). All we could think about was how to get ourselves back in shape again.
Alan Alda, Jane Fonda, California Suite
Fonda soon embarked on production of exercise videos, reinventing herself once again in her extraordinary life, and all the women I knew either owned one or joined a group using them.

I've been making a list of movie moments I won't forget. One was when, at the age of 12, I saw From Here To Eternity, with Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr lying right down on the beach--in the water-- and kissing passionately. I didn't know what the metaphor was, but I knew I was feeling something new in my nether regions. Another is the first time I saw Tommy Lee Jones (the movie was Coal Miner's Daughter) and came away wondering how he could ever be in another role--ditto the first time I saw Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade) who also grew as an actor with every role.

From time to time, we lose it at the movies. A guy just takes his shirt off and the earth moves. It happens every once in a while.