Sunday, March 26, 2017

Happy Birthday Tennessee Williams

Michael Keith and his daughters in search of Tennessee Williams.
 Recently my husband and his three grown daughters found themselves in St. Louis for the funeral of Michael's brother, David. The girls' beloved Uncle David was a much-respected theologian and professor, as well as a fine musician.  David played tuba in a symphony, and in the last decade of his life created the Clyde Pickens bluegrass band, named for his father Clyde and the county where he grew up, Pickens, South Carolina. David was 79-years-old when he died and we can all agree that living to the ripe old age of nearly 80 years is yet another accomplishment in a life well-lived.  A funeral is never a pleasant event,  but, as funerals often do, it brought together many far-flung members of a family, and a surprise reunion for Michael and his beloved daughters.
    No one in the group knew much about St. Louis, but Michael recalled that Tennessee Williams was buried there. Somewhere. The beautiful daughters agreed that finding the grave of America's greatest playwright was a perfect way to spend a sunny day in St. Louis. Out came the phones and consultations with Siri, the magical know-it-all who speaks from within the portable phones of the techno-savvy. 
Fifty years ago Michael made his first trip to 
St. Louis for the wedding of his brother David to Sue
David with his axe, the tuba
    This Siri business is quite remarkable to Michael, a guy who refuses to even consider the convenience of carrying a cell phone himself. Instead, he suggests that I recruit Siri on my cell phone and share the convenience with him. This is a real bone of contention in our marriage.  Don't get me started . . .  
Tennessee Williams with author Gore Vidal, among others, in a Manhattan garden in 1948 as his fateful adventure with fame began
 In his book, "Memoirs" Tennessee Williams says he'd specified in his will that he wanted to be cremated and buried at sea in the Gulf of Mexico near the probable location of the bones of Hart Crane. Crane was a favorite poet of Williams who died young (32) by jumping to his death from a boat sailing between Mexico and New York.  Crane took his own life on a day after he'd made sexual advances to a sailor on the boat.  The sailor was offended and beat the poet badly.  This sort of thing happened often enough to Williams, too, and he, no doubt, understood the shame related to being homosexual. But instead of jumping ship, as his favorite poet did, metaphorically that is, Williams saw the voyage through. He persevered, he wrote plays and more plays, and in 1944, "The Glass Menagerie" met with huge acclaim. He was 33-years-old. Overnight the lonely and depressive unknown playwright found fame and fortune. He entered the world of the famous and lived out his life plagued by what he called "the tragedy of success."
Tennessee Williams house. 1431 Duncan Street, Key West
Tennessee, happy, at his home on Duncan Street, circa 1965
   Tennessee Williams had an older sister, Rose, and a younger brother, Dakin.  Rose was lobotomized in 1937, when lobotomy was used to treat mental illness. She was dependent on full-time care, financed by Tennessee, for the remainder of her life. Dakin, who was 8 years younger, was an attorney who came to his infamous brother's aid in 1969, by having him hospitalized for alcoholism in St. Louis. Dakin also had Tennessee christened in St. Mary's Star of the Sea Catholic Church in Key West, as repentance for his sins of blatant homosexuality and generally debauched lifestyle.  Dakin loved the name of the church and Tennessee thought it a great title for a play.
      After Tennessee's death Dakin claimed that the playwright had been murdered. The hows and whys of this intrigue were never quite clear, but Dakin traveled with bodyguards when he attended New Orleans' annual Tennessee Williams Festival, celebrated around the March 26 birthdate of Tennessee Williams. And Dakin always enjoyed being the last link to understanding the playwright's life. He relished the role and claimed himself to be a  "professional brother."  Toward the end of his life Dakin created a bizarre one-man show in which he dressed in drag to portray Blanche Dubois. The show went through various versions, but always ended with the final speech from "Glass Menagerie." 
      In spite of Tennessee's stated wishes, upon his death Dakin had his brother's body transported from New York City to St. Louis, Missouri. There the body laid in state for two days and was buried in Calvary Catholic Cemetery. Tennessee's body lies eternally next to his mother, Edwina, and his sister, Rose.  When questioned on the matter, Dakin claimed that his brother's will contained no provision for a burial at sea. He added that he would have ignored it if it had.
Williams family plot in Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, Missouri.
     "Tennessee is such a literary personality that his grave should be where people can visit it," Dakin said. "They would have a hard time finding his ashes in the ocean."
     And so, on an unseasonably warm and sunny St. Louis afternoon, the group set out to find the graves of Tennessee Williams and his invalid sister Rose.  Both had once lived on the island of Key West in the not so distant past, a past that seems ever more hazy as this world speeds into a future where the genius of Tennessee Williams sometimes seems all but forgotten.

     And Dakin? He's there too, with Tennessee, Rose, and their mother Edwina.  But there are no words carved into a stone for Dakin, no way of knowing which grave is his. When you enter the Calvary Cemetery and they give you a map with red circles around the more notable denizens, Dakin's grave is not among them.  Why isn't Dakin's gravestone marked? Who can tell us? Maybe someone should ask Siri.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Put Me In Coach

Merle Miller, on left, performing with Bette Midler and the Harlettes
My friend Merle was a back-up singer for Bette Midler.  Bette's trio of singing and dancing dolls was called the Harlettes and as they rehearsed for their first big show, with Bette's piano man and arranger Barry Manilow, Merle, who had never heard Bette, found herself not particularly impressed with the Divine Miss M. She admired the talents and the beauty of her fellow Harlettes, but the singer, this so-called diva destined for stardom, this Bette Midler, was another story. Yes, she was good. Yes, she had good moves.  But, as Merle tells it, "she wasn't all that."  Then came the first concert. It was at Carnegie Hall and the place was packed.  That's when Merle finally understood just what, exactly, she'd become part of.
     "Bette blew the roof off the house," Merle says. "I was so shocked I almost fell over. I realized she didn't use her full voice to rehearse. She only used it to perform. And what a voice it is!" 
    I think Merle was using that story as an analogy -- something about not showing off everything you've got at the first opportunity, or the wisdom of playing your cards close to your vest. Merle was sharing some of her hard-won wisdom with me. But I wasn't hearing that. I was only hearing about Bette Midler and stories of the Harlettes.
    The tales of the great divas resonate for me. I've always wanted to sing, and I have. I played the flute, too. In the 60's, I was the girl who jumped up on stage to sing "Angel Baby" or "Me and Bobby McGee".  In the 70's  I sang Stevie Wonder's "You are the Sunshine of My Life" in various saloons around New York.  For a very short time I sang with a band but never got to sing a solo.  Just choruses and a couple of flute riffs. Once I answered an ad for a singer for a band in New York City and came upon a hopeful group of musicians who handed me the sheet music to Van Morris's "Moon Dance" and suggested we start there.  I had never heard the song, certainly had no idea how to sing it -- it was jazz and I was a rocker. The audition was over before I even got my flute out of the case. You try singing "Moon Dance", cold. 
    Then came love. Then came marriage. Then came June with a baby carriage and the happiest, little boy imaginable.
A happy litter drummer boy who grew up to be my darling Miguel.

Miguel, still following the beat
Miguel, a Montessori teacher, rocking with kids and friends
The Band, now disbanded. No back up singers . . . big mistake? Miguel on left looking rock 'n roll-y
Miguel with the beautiful Mia and diva wanna-be mom, June
 He loved music, too!  My son's brain, heart and soul are surely tattooed with the music he fell asleep to, the music he awakened to, and the music we played all day, every day, in the house were he grew up.  We parents were thrilled that we'd received a baby who slept blissfully at any noise level.  When our baby was 4 months old we took him with us to the Opera House in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and snuggled in his little carry-around bed, he slept like a lamb.
    Later, when Michael Jackson's "Thriller" came on MTV, Miguel would call us to the TV and we dropped whatever we were doing to watch the performance. And later still, when Miguel was too old for the bedtime story, I put a cassette player next to his bed and at bedtime he listened to soft jazz and rock. When the clink of the player sounded, and the music was over, Miguel was asleep. We also frequently listened to "Peter and the Wolf" and Miguel learned to identify the various instruments in the orchestra.
    I once told Miguel that although I didn't like spending my hard-earned money on faddish toys that were quickly tossed aside, I would never deny him a book or a CD. It was a vow my son never forgot. And when he got his first job, he bought me a gift with his first paycheck.  It was the Prince album, "1999".  I remember saying to him "Oh my! This was $20!" and Miguel said to me, "Mom, you're worth it."  A cherished memory.
    It comes as no surprise that Miguel has become a musician/performer.  Music is his passion, his mistress and his reason for getting out of bed every day. At the beginning of his stage career I tried often to show up.  Now, the performances are far too many for me to keep up with. But there's something else, too. When Miguel is singing those old songs, the ones I introduced him to, the Rolling Stones "Miss You", Lou Reed's  "Walk on the Wild Side" or the Temptations  "My Girl, " I want to be up there singing with him, just like in the old, old days of his childhood. Who was there for all those hours of background music and singing along to the radio, or the cassette player, in the car on a thousand miles of car rides?  His mama. That's who.
    One night Miguel and his guitar man Sweet Matthew were performing at Salute on the beach.  It was a breezy night, the air kissed with the familiar mingled scent of the beach and coconut oil. There was a crowd. I sat with friends, sharing antipasto and big chunks of chewy Italian bread when Miguel began to sing Elvis's  "Suspicious Minds," one of our favorites.  Suddenly he said "You know what? I'm gonna get a lady up here who knows all the words to this song."
    A shock of excitement went through my bones like a bolt of lightening. It's happening, I thought. I am going to share the stage with my son, this brilliant boy whose musical talents I have nurtured for over half of my life!  But what of the bread in my mouth and the tables and chairs between me and that coveted place on the stage, next to my own baby? I swallowed the bread and hastily wiped my mouth.  I quickly planned my route to the front of the room.  I sucked in my stomach and pushed out my chest, cleared my throat and prepared to make my move.
    "Jada," Miguel yelled. "Come on up here."
    A tall, lean, tanned blonde beauty hesitantly rose from a chair and tentatively made her way to the stage. Her friends, their friends, cheering her on. Meanwhile, my heart sank. It turned out Jada didn't know the words to the song and didn't even want to be up there. Everyone laughed as Jada mumbled something to Miguel and hurried back to her seat, covering her pretty face with her hands, shaking her head, feigning embarrassment.
    And that was the moment I knew that my role in my son's musical evolution was truly done. And so were my days on the stage and my visions of back-up singing. But I can still dream. And I do.  I so shooby shooby do.
I can do that! (Merle next to Bette, on stage)

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