THE WAY WE WEREN’T

The trouble with turning memories into memoirs is that when one is finished, a sneaky feeling comes along: “Things never were that way, anyway.” –Jean Negulesco (1900-93), Academy Award-winning movie director

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I’ve just finished reading Jean Negulesco’s memoir (coincidentally, he died 25 years ago today) titled THINGS I DID AND THINGS I THINK I DID. The above quote is from that book–as is his reflection on having raised, with his wife, two adopted daughters from war-torn, post-WWII Germany:

And so it starts, and so it ends. And we see ourselves in them. There is no sense in telling them, “When I was your age….” We never were their age. 

“We never were their age.” And so it is with us. We’ve never been ‘inside’ them–even our own children. When all is said and done, we’re lucky if we know ourselves–now, then or in-between–which is not to say that, along the way, we were not open to wanting whatever knowledge romance promised….

They say “You can’t go home again”–even if your old haunts still exist, your past and its ghosts stay with you, not with where you were….not so? So, where do we go?

Now, I’m as nostalgic as the next old geezer, but as my past recedes further into the past, I look at old photos, see the images of faces and places I knew, and there’s no avoiding the sense that the road between THINGS I DID AND THINGS I WISH I DID leads to a place where the sun sets before we get there.

Sooner or later, it’s all over but the doubting. It’s the place where (to paraphrase a phrase) OLD GHOSTS NEVER DIE, they….just….fade….a w a y

Still….

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GROUCHO AND M(US)E

Although it is generally known, I think it’s about time to announce that I was born at a very early age. –Groucho Marx, Chapter I, GROUCHO AND ME

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As long-time readers of my blog know, I’m a big fan of Groucho Marx/The Marx Brothers, so it should come as no surprise that one of the first books I read from my used book sale haul (see previous post) was Groucho’s autobiography, GROUCHO AND ME. And who, you ask, is the ME in that title? (Hint: it’s not me).  It’s none other (says the back cover) than “a comparatively unknown Marx named Julius, who, under the nom de plume of Groucho, enjoyed a sensational career on Broadway and in Hollywood with such comedy classics as Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup [and] A Night at the Opera.”

Julius Groucho Marx (1895-1977) wasn’t just a comedian — he was a wit who appreciated wit in others and “Gratefully Dedicated This Book To These Six Masters Without Whose Wise and Witty Words My Life Would Have Been Even Duller: Robert Benchley / George S. Kaufman / Ring Lardner / S. J. Perelman / James Thurber / E. B. White.”

I already owned several Marx Brothers books (written by others) and had at least a whit of an impression of Groucho’s résumé before sinking my teeth into this book….but there’s nothing like an autobio for getting it straight from the Horse’s mouth (Feathers and all). At least, that’s what I thought until I got to page 11, where Groucho wrote:

“This opus started out as an autobiography, but before I was aware of it, I realized it would be nothing of the kind. It is almost impossible to write a truthful autobiography. Maybe Proust, Gide and a few others did it, but most autobiographies take good care to conceal the author from the public.”

Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle. This is a different kettle of soup. You pay coal hard cash for an autobiography, and what do you get? A bit of Cash back, another day older and deeper in debt.

Well, two can play that game. This opus began as a book review of GROUCHO AND ME, but Groucho’s bait-and-switch gives me no choice but to turn it into a GROUCHO AND me thing (sorry, readers, no refunds) by invoking the Sanity Clause in my contract….

As I started to say before me was so rudely interrupted, you will have to be satisfied with some suitable quotes from Groucho’s book, which left me in stitches:

My Pop was a tailor, and sometimes he made as much as $18 a week. But he was no ordinary tailor. His record as the most inept tailor that Yorkville ever produced has never been approached. This could even include parts of Brooklyn and the Bronx. The notion that Pop was a tailor was an opinion held only by him. To his customers he was known as “Misfit Sam.”

They say that every man has a book in him. This is about as accurate as most generalizations. Take, for example, “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man you-know-what.” Most wealthy people I know like to sleep late, and will fire the help if they are disturbed before three in the afternoon. You don’t see Marilyn Monroe getting up at six in the morning. The truth is, I don’t see Marilyn getting up at any hour, more’s the pity.

Recognition didn’t come overnight in the old days. We bounced around for many years before we made it. We played towns I would refuse to be buried in today, even if the funeral were free and they tossed in a tombstone.

After we hit the big time on Broadway, naturally our lives changed. Each member of the family reacted differently. Chico stopped going to poolrooms and started to patronize the more prosperous race tracks. After he got through with them, they were even more prosperous. Zeppo bought a forty-foot cruiser and tore up Long Island Sound as though to the manner born. Harpo, a shy and silent fellow, was taken up by the Algonquin crowd, at that time probably the most famous and brilliant conversational group in America. The quips flew thick, fast and deadly, and God help you if you were a dullard!

I am not sure how I got to be a comedian or a comic. As a lad, I don’t remember knocking anyone over with my wit. I’m a pretty wary fellow, and have neither the desire nor the equipment to know what makes one man funny to another man. My guess is that there aren’t a hundred top-flight professional comedians, male and female, in the whole world. But because we are laughed at, I don’t think people really understand how essential we are to their sanity. If it weren’t for the brief respite we give the world with our foolishness, the world would see mass suicide in numbers that compare with the death rate of the lemmings.

And so ( just between Groucho and us) it seems that there is a Sanity Clause after all. 🙂

 

 

 

 

THE AUTOBIOGRAPHIES OF HOAGY CARMICHAEL (Book Review)

On this, the 114th birthday of Hoagy Carmichael (11/22/1899 – 12/26/1981), I daresay you could mention his name to 100 random people under age 60, and 99 (maybe all 100) would say, “Hoagy who?”  But why waste time lamenting the fate awaiting almost all “celebrities” sooner or later? Fame is indeed fleeting — perhaps now more than ever — and relative few are the songwriters, actors and singers (for Hoagy was all three) who will be remembered on their triple-digit birthdays by succeeding generations. So it is with Bloomington, Indiana’s Hoagy — but his star shines on, nonetheless, for those who appreciate the timelessness of creative magic.

For this occasion, I have pulled from my bookshelves a 1999 Hoagy double-autobiography which is a republication of The Stardust Road (1946) and Sometimes I Wonder (1965), with a new introduction by John Edward Hasse. I’d read this volume a few years ago, and it’s as good a way as any to re-visit Hoagland Howard Carmichael, a man whose music and film roles I’d known since my youth in the 1940s. As Hasse puts it in his introduction:

Hoagy Carmichael was a true American original. First of all, there was his name…. Then there was that singing voice–the flat, Hoosier cadences–and that laconic public persona, impossible to mistake for anyone else’s. And there was his unusual career path–from law student, lawyer, and Wall Street employee to hit songwriter and celebrity via records, motion pictures, radio and television.
But most original of all were the songs Carmichael wrote, songs that typically sound like nobody else’s.

I love the way Hoagy begins The Stardust Road:
The phone rang and I picked it up. It was Wad Allen. “Bix died,” he said
 (referring to Hoagy’s close friend and legendary early jazz trumpeter, Bix Beiderbecke).
Wad laughed a funny laugh. “I wonder if it will hurt old Gabriel’s feelings to play second trumpet?” Wad asked.
I could hear Wad’s breathing, then suddenly, but gradually getting clearer, I heard something else.
“I can hear him,” I said. “I can hear him fine from here.”
Over and around the sound I heard Wad’s voice.
“Sure,” he said shakily. “So can I.”
“I guess he didn’t die, then.”
And so it went back and forth, until Hoagy said, “Call me up again,” I told him, “when somebody else doesn’t die.”
But Wad had hung up. I tilted back in the chair before my desk and felt tears behind my eyes.  

These are the kind of personal reminiscences you can only get from those who experienced them. If you’re a true lover of classic jazz and the Golden Age of popular music, you will find Hoagy’s autobiographies irresistible. THE STARDUST ROAD/SOMETIMES I WONDER combo is available on Amazon.com, AbeBook.com and elsewhere.

And speaking of combos, let’s close with two versions of Hoagy’s immortal Star Dust, the first by Louis Armstrong, whose incomparable 1931 rendition still sets the standard after all these years, and the second, by Hoagy himself:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=r94-7nJt-WM

www.youtube.com/watch?v=j2fbOAyNOpM