Spring Awakening

Just thought I’d name this post for my favorite new musical. If you haven’t seen it, do. And Jonathan Groff, the lead, is a sweet kid. He even let me bring my nephew backstage to meet him after we saw it in December. I’ll be rooting for Jonathan come Tony time. I had an unrequited crush on him for a few weeks. Jonathan would be a great replacement for Daniel Radcliffe after he completes his Broadway run as Alan Strang in Equus next spring, costarring with Richard Griffiths as Dr. Dysart. (Spring Awakening’s producer, Tom Hulce, played Alan as Peter Firth’s replacement back on Broadyway in the 1970s.) Alan is a part I also played back when I was Jonathan’s age. Anthony Perkins played Dr. Dysart opposite me. I had a shag back then. And I had to wax my chest and stomach to appear closer to 17 the age of the character in the play. I think I was around 21 or 22 at the time. That was thirty years ago now. Roberta Maxwell played the stable girl with whom Alan has a nude scene. The last time I saw her, she was playing Jake Gyllenhaal’s mother at the end of Brokeback Mountain. I am often reminded that I have reached the “mother role” phase in my own life. When I used to watch Six Feet Under I always indentified with the sons until it always dawned on me that I went to the Juilliard School of Drama with Frannie Conroy, who played their mother. “I’m the mama,” I’d always whisper to myself and wait for Claire to fuck up.

Spring is, indeed, awakening and God am I grateful. Since I last posted, I went to dinner with Christopher Lee Nutter on Thursday night and took him to a party that my pal, Carole Radziwill, gave at her place on King Street for Norwood, a new arts club to be headquartered in a townhouse on 14th Street which is to open sometime this spring. Carole has just installed a turntable in her apartment, so records were also spun. It was all kind of au courant and old-fashioned and elegant and lively at the same time – much like Carole herself Friday I caught the train to Boston for a reading at Calamus Bookstore. It’s owner, John Mitzel, could not have been more gracious in his sonorous, flush-faced, royal blue-wearing way. A nice guy. It was standing room only in his lovely store. I read sitting at a table with shelves behind me around my head filled with first editions by gay writers. James Purdy and Patrick Dennis tomes were floating there next to my right ear. I could almost hear their very different prose styles whispering to me from between their covers before I started reading my own stylistic prose. Sold a few books. Had an interesting discussion afterwards with those who came to hear me read. People again complimented me on my “performance” from the book. I do enjoy these readings. Maybe I’ll do a one-man show of sections from the book at some point. Who knows. I’d forgotten what that sweet-spot of performing felt like. I used to feel it when I wore a shag and straddled Nugget, Alan’s horse-of-choice at the end of the first act, and went on one of his – my – midnight rides. I got back around 1 a.m. – a midnight ride of a very different sort – from Boston (don’t get me started on Jetblue again) and fell fast asleep looking forward to the weather we had all been promised on Saturday.

The promise was fullfilled. After I worked out at the gym, I got on my new Electra Amsterdam bike and rode and rode and rode the blues away under the blue blue blue sky. Made it down to the parks and piers in the Village – it’s a bit like a midwestern river city that has spent some senior senator’s federal largesse on a waterfront, not Manhattan – but it was quite clean there and I did appreciate all those half naked bodies and beautiful faces, their winter glowers finally fading as they all, legs splayed, shoulders flexed, their calves cooled against the first brush of sod and grass and a spring breeze, allowed themselves to be moored in place, their hips beginning to list a bit in the sun, beneath the gleaming Meier apartment buildings.

I then rode down to my old neighborhood in Tribeca where I lived for about 15 years on Desbrosses and Greenwich. I was amazed by the difference in the neighborhood. Buildings even gleamier than the Meier cluster up the river had risen all around the old spice factory building where I had my loft. I loved living down there because it was so secluded and a bit of a frontier – though Bruce Weber and Bette Midler had lofts right around the corner. Bruce is still there I think. Bette’s become a Fifth Avenue lady – some downtown doyennes become that. Bette’s one of them, bless her heart. I worshipped her growing up back in Mississippi. My artistic brother Kim even painted t-shirts, exact copies of the Amsel portrait on her Divine Miss M album, for Karole and him and me when were were kids out in the country. I did a big cover story on her for Vanity Fair back around 1989, 1990. I visited her on the set of For the Boys and hung out at her house in Beverly Hills (”Well, Beverly Hills post office, “she corrected me back then, the first time I knew there was a distinction, a completely LA term to my New Yorkcentric ears.) She and her handsome fashionable lug of a husband, Martin, took me out to lunch. I even helped her – she was getting into gardening big time right about then – with her mulch. I helped her find best weed eater available at that time something like this. One day, over a year later, I was unlocking my bike on our shared corner in Tribeca and she and Martin were emerging from their building. “Hi, Bette,” I said. “Remember me?” She swept by in her haughtiest on-stage diva mode. “Hmmmph … vividly,” she said and strode right by. I had obviously said something in the VF story to offend her. My heart raced at the thought. Weeks later I was in our local breakfast expresso place. I was reading the Times and eating my croissant when she entered. We were the only two people in the place. “Morning, Bette,” I said. “Looks like you’re going to have a hit,” I told her, having seen the previews of First Wives Club a few days before. “Hmmmph,” she said, her favorite non-word it seemed when I was around. I turned back to the Times. My heart began to race again. I heard the click of her heels compete with the rapid beats of my increasingly racing heart. She stood, akimbo, next to me. “Kevin, we have to talk,” she said. “When you wrote that story on me for Vanity Fair, you said my baby was homely and it broke my heart.” I began to interrupt her. “No. Listen to me. What you wrote broke my heart. I have tried to forgive you. I have prayed to forgive you. I was hoping with time I could forgive you. But – look at me …” I looked up from my half-eaten croissant. Crusty remnants of it adhered to the roof of my mouth. “I will never fogive you,” she said. My hand shook own my expresso cup. “But, Bette … ” I stammered. “Kevin,” she said. “You broke my heart and I will never forgive you.” With that, she turned on her clicking heels and ordered her own expresso. Fade out. Fade in. The next year, in Vanity Fair’s Hollywood issue, I was asked to write an appreciation of Bette for the magazine’s Hall of Fame page. The form was that each sentence had to begin “Because …. ” At one point I said, words to the effect, that because in spite of all her awards and critical praise her greatest creation was her lovely daughter and then wrote Sophie’s lyrical full name. (I had initially written in the cover story on Bette that though Sophie had been a charmingly homely baby it was easy to see why Bette was so proud of her because she had grown into such an adorable child. But, rightly so, Better had focused on the word “homely.” I apologized privately to Martin and her with a note I slipped under their door and the Hall of Fame page was a public one as well.) A couple of weeks passed and I was buzzed at my loft. “Western Union,” came the voice. Who would be sending me a telegram in this day and age? I opened it and it read: “Kevin, That was very decent of you. All is forgiven. Bette. ” What a classy dame, which is more than I can say for myself in that story. Sometimes I think that’s one of the aspects of being gay: falling just short of being a classy dame oneself.

I rode up from Tribeca into Soho and dropped in on my friend Michael Smith at Depression Modern, who had decorated my entire loft back in those days with 1930s furniture from his store. My weekend stops, when I’m in town in nice weather, have always included – for over 20 years now – a visit with Michael and his dear friend, Howard, who worked in the store on weekends. The Sunday before I headed out on book tour on that Monday, I visited Howard at St. Vincents hospital to bring him some tulips and see how he was doing. He was not doing well. He was up in his 80s and a lifetime smoker and when one thing started going wrong, everything started going wrong. He never made it home. I had been thinking about Howard all during my tour. I had written the words “Depression Modern is a less lovingly irascible place without you there. Get well, honey” on the note I left with the tulips. Michael told me Saturday that Howard had passed away. I stood in the store and cried a bit. I had last seen Howard in the lobby of City Center before the concert version of Follies. He was complaining that Michael was late and he was freezing and how he was so looking forward to seeing the production. Howard taught scenic design at Brooklyn College and worked as a scenic designer all his adult life. His professional heyday was back in the ‘50 and ’60s. I’ll miss talking about what theatre we’d seen the week before when I’d go downstairs at Depression Modern and sit at the table with him as well as discuss the stories he was reading in the Times and Post that day. He was one of those sweet curmudgeonly gay gentlemen of a certain age – literally a dying breed now – who are a repository of fabulous memories and nicotine and a hard-earned grace. Rest in peace, Howard. My life was enhanced knowing you.

Saturday night I met up for dinner with my friends Jamie – a Columbia med student – and his New Zealand boyfriend Bede, who recently graduated from Columbia law school. Jamie is on his way to Cape Town for the summer to work with AIDS orphans and Bede, who specializes in human rights law, is headed to Johannesburg to do some pro bono work before settling into his new job in D.C. at a law firm. We had a great meal at Mermaid Inn and then walked over to KGB Bar to hear Phil LaMarche read from his novel, American Youth. Remember Phil from my Toronto posting? The place was packed with his groupies – yeah, I guess I’m one of them – and I bought a book for him to sign. (Jerry Stahl in the LA Times gave him a rave last week and called the book “an American masterpiece.”) Before Phil read he said that some of his friends didn’t show up because they thought readings were for sissies. He wrote in my book, “Readings are not for sissies.” I think I would have liked it better if he had stuck with his friends’ attitude and turned it on its head. But maybe you have to be a real sissy to do that.

After the reading I left Bede and Jamie in an East Village boy bar to drink and I rode my bike up to the movie theatre on 11th and Third and bought a ticket to Fracture. Anthony Hopkins, the original Dr. Dysart in Equus on Broadway, and Ryan Gosling, who would have made a great Alan Strang a few years ago, were fun to watch though the movie was a bit too slick for my tastes. I made it home by midnight and read the Times with Archie my dog cuddled next to me. I wondered what stories Howard would have found the most interesting in the Arts and Leisure section. I fell asleep, looking forward to Sunday and more sunshine. I dreamt of Cape Town and Johannesburg and Bette Midler’s face singing Surabaya Johnny on a t-shirt I wish I still had in my drawer. “I’m the mama,” she whispered to me after she sang the song. “I”m the mama,” I whispered back. “I’m the mama,” we both kept saying and we were. We are.

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