Friday, August 13, 2010
“Guess who died?” she said.
The question itself gave me a jolt.
“Who?” I asked.
“Elvis Presley” was the answer.
The first records I remember hearing, probably because I liked them, were “I’ll Remember You,” the Frank Ifield hit whose wailing harmonica inspired John Lennon to play the instrument on the Beatles’ early hits; “It Might As Well Rain Until September,” songwriter Carole King’s first attempt at recording her own compositions; Lenny Welch’s weepy “Since I Fell for You”; and “Stuck on You” by Elvis Presley.
The latter title was prophetic. I had no interest in seeking out other recordings by Ifield, King, or Welch, but Presley’s distinctive style had me hooked. All those “uh-uh-uh,”s “yessiree,”s and “oh yeah”s were unlike anything my ears had heard.
I believe my mother had the record, the wear and tear around the RCA Victor label marking it as a disc purchased from the bargain bin, but I wanted more, and I vividly recall my mother taking me to the cramped Record Rendezvous in downtown Cleveland to buy another Elvis. I remember the walls decorated with the latest albums by everyone from Ricky Nelson to Lawrence Welk. These were 33 1/3 record albums whose covers were impressive even if the artwork wasn’t particularly eye catching simply because they were fairly large, over 10 down and across. And your sense of smell could identify a record store even if there wasn’t any music playing. Those heavy vinyl platters had a pleasing scent that compact discs lack.
I don’t remember the title of the Elvis 45 I picked up, only the picture sleeve that it came in, but I do know it didn’t impress me since the King was more subdued than he was when performing “Stuck on You.” There were none of those “uh-uh-uh”s and “oh yeah”s that made him sound so different. No matter. There were other Elvises to come including the Blue Hawaii soundtrack that I can still see beneath the Christmas tree in either ‘61 or ‘62. Yes, Elvis was also a movie star, and that may have been more significant to me than his success as a recording artist. I was already obsessed with movies, and I would see most of Presley’s films. There was a triple feature of Love Me Tender, Jailhouse Rock, and Kid Galahad at the Garden. Girls, Girls, Girls reissued in support of John Wayne in Circus World at the Lyceum. Follow That Dream and It Happened at the World’s Fair on ABC-TV, a network that acknowledged the King’s status as the world’s biggest star by preceding the telecast of every film with a clip displaying that name - ELVIS - repeatedly. There was Tickle Me at the Garden in 1965, and, earlier, Fun in Acapulco paired with something called Hootenany Hoot at the same theater. I still recall the buttered popcorn I consumed in the dark on that visit to the Garden, although I don’t know why it stands out more than other buttered popcorns I ate at the movies.
It was when Roustabout played at the Garden that Elvis encouraged a friendship with one of my classmates in Sister Cora’s second grade class at St. Procop. John Sorma had approached the manager to ask him when the Elvis Presley movie would begin. The next day at school, I established that it was Roustabout’s star, not its flimsy plot or the presence of Barbara Stanwyck in the cast, that brought Sorma to the West 25th Street movie house (open only on weekends) on a Sunday night. My other friends were callously excised from my life as Sorma and I became inseparable. We endured his older brother’s teasing about the superiority of the Beatles, exchanged records, and, with my mother, saw Viva Las Vegas and Kissin’ Cousins at the Garden together. We were each other’s best friends, but we both acknowledged that a demotion was possible if either of us were to meet Elvis.
Sorma moved away after second grade, so our friendship was not as enduring as the King’s popularity, but the years 1964-1965 are among the most vivid in my memory. We shared the fun of being Elvis fans, and also the ups and downs that come with any relationship. I remember his mother, a quiet chain smoker who collected the coupons packaged with Raleigh cigarettes, and died of cancer in summer ‘65. Nine years later, long after we had drifted apart, his brother Patrick, a reserved, comforting sort, got his picture in the local paper when they reported his death in some sort of scuffle that ended in gunfire. Twenty years after that, John Sorma lost control of his car on Lorain Avenue, and joined his mother, his brother, and Elvis in death.
“Memories, pressed between the pages of my mind,” Elvis once sang. I have many, and Elvis was present in some of the best, sometimes as a peripheral figure, and other times dominating them. Is it any wonder that Elvis was so deeply mourned? For millions of people, Elvis was, as NBC’s David Brinkley said, “a part of our lives.”
Whatever happened to the rest of the Sorma clan? I don’t know, but John’s older sister did not marry Sean Connery’s brother as he breathlessly reported she was going to do when he came by my house in summer ‘65 for no reason but to tell me this fib. Besides, his sister was in love with Elvis, having written “I love you” in lipstick on a black-and-white photo of the King published in one of those movie magazines so popular at the time. I remember seeing it on her bed the time her brother and I snuck into her room.
In the mid ‘60s, my interest in Elvis started to wane. Movies were my passion, and my tastes became more sophisticated, no longer limited to Elvis and American International horror flicks. But in 1968 came NBC’s presentation of Elvis, his first TV special, and that dynamic comeback revived my enthusiasm, as did such classic recordings as “Suspicious Minds” and “Kentucky Rain.” Soon after, he was lost to Vegas.
I pretty much lost interest in contemporary music in the early ‘70s, but Elvis seemed equally apathetic. His last top 10 hit was 1972's “Burning Love,” and though his concerts sold out within hours of being announced, his off-stage antics attracted more attention than his on-stage performances. The National Enquirer, Star, and other lurid tabloids splashed his increasingly bulky frame on its covers as they detailed every move he made, whether it was midnight snowmobiling in Colorado, his interest in numerology, or his habit of giving Cadillacs to complete strangers. When the King of Rock and Roll got fat, the media gloated, but no matter how many times he split his sequined pants, his appeal to women of all ages remained undimmed. By 1975, there were also frequent reports of his hospitalizations and his insistence that the windows of the hotel rooms he stayed in while on tour be covered in tin foil to block out all traces of sunlight.
In the late ‘50s, when his gyrations on stage were compared to that of a stripper, he defended himself by insisting he lived a “straight, clean life,” and that image followed him to Hollywood where it was believed his parties, fabled for the number of females present, were innocuous affairs with no drinks stronger than Pepsi. The reports of drug use that exploded following his death, itself drug-induced, took his fans by surprise. They all breathed a collective sigh of relief when the coroner announced that the King’s crown was toppled by “cardiac arrhythmia - a severe, irregular heartbeat.” In 1979, Geraldo Rivera would demolish that myth with an hour long report detailing Presley’s addiction to prescription drugs, but on August 16, 1977, the ABC news reporter known for his maverick style presided over the network’s late evening reminiscences of the fallen King. NBC competed with an excellent report anchored by veteran newscaster David Brinkley who closed the broadcast by saying Elvis “changed our lives, like it or not.”
CBS, however, bungled the story badly. After my mother informed me of Elvis’ passing, I turned on The CBS Evening News in the misguided belief that they would have the most comprehensive report - after all, it was on their Sunday night Ed Sullivan Show that Presley made his most notable early appearances. Instead, CBS led their news that night with a report on former president Gerald Ford’s endorsement of the Salt II treaty. Roger Mudd, subbing for the vacationing Walter Cronkite, later told TV Guide that he protested the decision, but was overruled by the producer.
An embarrassed CBS, criticized for their failure to recognize one of the most important news stories of the year, compensated for their gaffe with a thoughtful half-hour news special two nights later. Hosted by Charles Kuralt, who had been present at a news conference Elvis held for the media upon his discharge from the U.S. Army in 1960, the special was memorable for emphasizing Presley’s impact on culture and society, the result being a more thoughtful program worthy of the time capsule. “Try to remember, try to remember,” Kuralt intoned from a darkened studio highlighted only by some black-and-white photos of Elvis in his prime. “1956 was the year Elvis Presley had his first national impact. Ike was in his glory, Grace was in her palace, and all was well with the world, except an Alabama preacher named Martin Luther King didn’t think so.”
Elvis may not have invented rock and roll, but he was the genre’s most creative innovator, forging a style that would influence almost every performer who emerged in his wake. And it was Elvis who made rock and roll an international phenomenon that would give rise to the Beatles, the only performers whose popularity and impact rivaled his own.
Rock and rollers, and popular music performers in general, come and go, and only a handful endure or are even remembered by anyone but those present during their brief blaze of glory. On August 16, 1977, the biggest star in music was Peter Frampton whose multimillion selling live album had replaced Carole King’s 1971 Tapestry as the biggest selling disc in history. But Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors would soon displace it, and the band itself would push Frampton off the radar within months. The disco explosion that followed the December release of Saturday Night Fever with its throbbing Bee Gees soundtrack would fade as quickly as it arrived, as New Wave bands like Blondie dominated the charts. Michael Jackson’s brief reign in the ‘80s, spurred by MTV and music videos, would crumble long before the dramatic charges of child molestation that forever tainted his image in the ‘90s. Other sounds and equally fleeting bands and singers would rise in years to come, but none have challenged Elvis whose collection of number one hits would reach the top of the Billboard charts in 2001.
Elvis is many things, including an anagram for “lives.” Indeed, he does, 30 years after leaving the building for a final time.
Brian W. Fairbanks
August 12, 2007
Monday, August 2, 2010
Truman Capote: No Time to Write
Throughout Conversations with Capote, Lawrence Grobel’s collection of interviews he conducted with Truman Capote in the last two years of the controversial author’s life, Capote is asked to comment on his contemporaries in literature and the arts, as well as those whose celebrity corresponded with his own. Is there anyone this man did not know?
“Cole (Porter) was one of my greatest friends . . . “
“Willa Cather was a great friend of mine.”
“Most of my lifetime friends, like Cecil B. DeMille, are gone.”
“Adlai (Stevenson) was a very good friend of mine. A very good friend.”
(On Malcolm Lowry, author of Under the Volcano): “I knew him very well.”
“I knew (Jean) Cocteau quite well.”
“I knew (William) Faulkner quite well. He was a great friend of mine.”
“I don’t think Camus, much as I liked him personally, will be remembered.”
“. . . Graham Greene is a great friend of mine, virtually a lifelong friend.”
“I knew (W.H. Auden) very well.”
“I knew (Yukio Mishima) very well.”
“Humphrey Bogart was a wonderful person. We were very good friends right up until he died.”
“Oh, (Montgomery Clift) was a great friend of mine.”
“(John Gielgud is) an old friend of mine.”
“I knew (Charlie Chaplin) since I was seventeen years old. . . “
“Yes, I knew (James Dean). I didn’t think much of him.”
“(Noel Coward) was a great friend.”
Greta Garbo: “She’s quite a good friend.”
“I used to be great friends with (Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis). I hate her.”
As for Errol Flynn, the swashbuckling star of Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood, Capote says, “I didn’t know him that well. Altogether I only saw him three times in my life,” but they had an “evening together” that included sex.
Capote also knew John Lennon: “I knew him a little bit and I liked him a lot.” And Mick Jagger: “Mick is a bore . . . He’s about as square as you can possibly be.” He was also acquainted with Elvis Presley. “Elvis Presley gave me the only dinner party I’ve ever heard of his giving in Las Vegas . . . He lived very near me (in Palm Springs) and he was going to open at this big hotel in Las Vegas . . . and he invited me to come up to see it, ‘cause I had never seen him . . . He was nice, I sort of liked him.”
Capote also knew John and Robert Kennedy, and even JFK’s alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. “Highly neurotic. Certainly crazy,” Capote says of the man who he believes did pull the trigger that day in Dallas and acted alone. “I only saw him twice . . . In Moscow, just when he defected. I was living in Moscow.”
Oh, and Cary Grant and Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, who dropped acid together. Capote joined in once “just, basically, to please (Huxley) and Cary Grant. He used to take things with Cary Grant.”
Capote certainly knew fellow author Gore Vidal with whom he publicly feuded. “Of course, he’s jealous,” Capote said of Vidal. “Gore has never written anything that anybody will remember . . . he has not done the one essential thing: he has not written a book that was the turning point in either his or anybody else’s life.” In the 1980s, Vidal sued Capote for libel as a result of some comments Capote made in an interview concerning Vidal’s falling out with the Kennedy clan, to whom Vidal was very distantly related (his mother married Jackie Bouvier’s father, making the former first lady Vidal’s sort of stepsister). It was settled out of court when Capote issued a public apology (“I apologize for any distress, inconvenience, or expense which may have been caused you . . . I was not present at the event about which I was quoted in the interview . . .”)
Although Vidal is equally dismissive of Capote’s work as Capote was of his, Vidal contends their bitter feud began because “Capote lies.” Certainly, he’s not the only one who thinks so. John Huston, who Capote did, indeed, know from having worked on the screenplay of Huston’s 1954 film, Beat the Devil, spoke warmly of him but dismissed Capote’s claim that “(Huston) never wrote a word of Beat the Devil . . It was all mine . . . When I was working, he was sleeping. Actually, he was playing cards and drinking.” When interviewing Huston for Playboy, Grobel related Capote’s words to the director who simply said, “We wrote together.” Ray Bradbury is another book writer whose name appeared alongside Huston’s (on Moby Dick) whose recollections suggest Capote may have been truthful in regard to Huston’s work habits, but no matter. Capote had a reputation for twisting and stretching the truth, and the charge was even leveled against his work. Of In Cold Blood, Capote’s revered “nonfiction novel,” Harold Nye, a detective with the Kansas Bureau of Investigation that solved the murders that inspired the book, called it “a fiction thing, and being a young officer, I took offense at the fact that he didn’t tell the truth.” Surviving members of the Clutter family also took issue with Capote’s portrayal of their mother, Bonnie, one of the four victims of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith’s night of savagery. In the film, Infamous, we see Harper Lee reprimanding Capote for his intention to use “fictional techniques” in telling the true story of the Clutters and their killers. “What fictional techniques?” she asks. “The parts you make up?”
Vidal believes Capote used “fictional techniques” when discussing his personal life, and especially the people he claimed to know.
“You could not mention anyone famous to him – ‘Oh, I knew him so well’ – and he’d start in,” Vidal said.
Vidal is a legendary name dropper himself, but in his memoir, Palimpsest, states that though he seems to have met everybody, he didn’t really know anyone. In fact, he made a conscious effort to avoid knowing people because his life was devoted to writing and reading books. Capote, however, with his constant claims to friendship with almost anyone his interviewer mentions, would seem to have scarcely had time to write anything. After In Cold Blood’s publication in 1965, Capote’s name appeared on a collection of magazine articles (“I’ve always done a lot of magazine pieces. What you do in the end is you just collect them together in a book”), but there was no major work to rival his masterpiece. And yet, in his interviews with Grobel, he always claims to be writing.
“. . . I manage to write about four hours a day,” he says. Of his novel, Answered Prayers, of which only four chapters surfaced, he claimed to have started it in 1972, its contents culled from journals, diaries, and letters he wrote between 1943 and 1965. When he died in 1984, the long rumored roman a clef could not be found. Director Frank Perry was one of many who believed that, except for the four chapters published in Esquire, Answered Prayers did not exist. On a visit to Capote’s home, Perry asked him how work was proceeding. “He pointed to his worktable and said, ‘Look at that, finished pages, two and a half inches. It’s wonderful.’” When Capote wasn’t looking, Perry wandered to the table to find what he called a “Missouri bankroll, which is to say, the top three pages had typewriting on them and the rest were blank. It was for show.”
Perhaps knowing so many people, if, indeed, he did know them, prevented Capote from writing anything but those magazine pieces he probably had to write to generate cash. Capote “simply wanted to be famous through writing,” Vidal said. He became famous with his first novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, published in 1948 when he was only 27-years-old, but his fame expanded, along with his income and waistline, with the phenomenal success of In Cold Blood. He celebrated with his famous, and infamous, “black and white ball” at the Plaza Hotel in New York.
“Well, the whole party was a statement of art,” Capote said of the bash at which the guests wore masks. “It was really very beautiful, really was spectacular to see – what I had done with it visually, not just who was there, because I had everybody there.”
“Everybody” included Frank Sinatra and then wife Mia Farrow, William F. Buckley, Jr., Cecil Beaton, Candice Bergen, Norman Mailer, Charles Addams, Oscar de la Renta, Marisa Berenson, Lee Radziwell, a lot of New York society types whose names mean nothing to the world outside Manhattan, and Katherine Graham, published of The Washington Post in whose honor the party was supposedly given. “I felt a little bit that Truman was going to give the ball anyway and that I was part of the props,” Graham recalled.
The big shebang was highly publicized before and after it took place. “The guest list was published in The New York Times,” remembered Norman Podhoretz.
But what exactly was the point of it?
Podhoretz called it “some turning point in the cultural history, the social history of New York, even the United States in the sense that the confluence of the fashionable social world, and the literary world and the world of political power was embodied in that guest list.” These very separate worlds began to intersect with the election of John F. Kennedy to the White House due to the new commander-in-chief’s interest in culture and the arts, and now they met with full force. Capote, Podhoretz said, “dramatized the change by making that party’s guest of honor a Washington figure, Kay Graham.”
Author John Knowles offered a different take on Capote’s motives: “Don’t you think Truman sat there in Monroeville, Alabama, when he was about ten, deeply rejected and out of it, strange little outcast, even in his own house, and said that someday he would hire the most beautiful ballroom in New York City and he would have the most elegant and famous people in the world there?” (Plimpton 248)
If Capote is, as someone stated, the most famous writer in the world, alongside Ernest Hemingway, his status rests more on his penchant for attracting attention to himself rather than readers to his work. The man who, in 1979, told The New York Times that “I never had any problem being a homosexual,” was probably best known to the majority of Americans as the only rival to Liberace, the flamboyant pianist, as the world’s biggest queen thanks to his effeminate manner, queer appearance, and unusual voice which he regularly displayed on television beginning in 1968, the year he made his first appearance on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Soon, he would also be appearing with the other chat hosts, Dick Cavett and Merv Griffin. The audience would titter as he emerged from behind the curtain, often wearing a flouncy hat that wouldn’t look out of place on a woman, and sunglasses. Once he was seated next to the host and spoke his first words, the audience always laughed and would giggle as he’d massage his eyes with his fist. If they were laughing at him, he would soon have them laughing with him as he shared amusing, sometimes bitchy, stories, or insulted someone, as he did Jacqueline Susann, the bestselling author of such trashy kitsch as Valley of the Dolls, who he said “looked like a truck driver in drag.”
For a man who repeatedly slammed people for what he saw as their cruelty or other unpleasant characteristics and even seemed to take their personalities into account when passing judgment on their work (“I don’t think anything Hemingway did was one of the best of anything. There was a mean man”), Capote could be heartless in his comments on others. “I caused Jacqueline Susann’s death!” he boasted to Grobel. “She was lying in bed dying of cancer. I didn’t know.” She saw the TV show in which Capote insulted her and, “She fell out of bed. (Laughs.) Her husband picked her up. She was coughing up blood and never recovered. She sued me for a million dollars. (Laughs.) (Capote was even less kind to a more “serious” author, Joyce Carol Oates: “I’ve seen her, and to see her is to loathe her. To read her is to absolutely vomit”).
Such mean-spirited cattiness was exactly what middle America expected from a stereotyped homosexual, and Capote faithfully delivered what the public wanted, and made himself a “personality” known to millions, most of whom never read a word he wrote.
“I don’t know anybody who gets as much publicity as I do for doing nothing,” he said. Of course, he did do things. It’s just that those things rarely seemed to include writing. He feuded publicly with fellow writers, hung out with Andy Warhol at Studio 54 during the sexually, liberated late ‘70s before the arrival of AIDS on the scene, hung out with the Beautiful People and eventually betrayed them, and was all over the tabloids – a gossip columnist’s dream. He earned his initial fame as a writer. In the end, however, he was famous for being famous. It was certainly easier to be a “personality” than an artist.
“He was not his old creative self,” Peter Beard, a photographer who accompanied the Rolling Stones on tour in 1972 when Capote tagged along to write about the world’s greatest rock and roll band for Rolling Stone, an article that never materialized. “He was an ‘in’ person with whom to talk. He’d had a lot of very successful Johnny Carson shows, and he realized that the audience responded to him because it was the Johnny Carson show, not because of his writing. I think all of that put together helped him go round the bend. He realized that writing is so much work – it’s lonely, isolated work, and that it wasn’t worth it. When he could go on the Johnny Carson show and have millions of people respond to him, that ratio of input to result was more satisfying to him.”
Capote the TV star had a long run, but even before his death in 1984, his appearances were becoming rare. A former neighbor of Johhny Carson when The Tonight Show was based in New York, their friendship apparently ended when Carson divorced Joanne, his third wife at whose Los Angeles home Capote died.
“I knew Johnny pretty well, but nobody knows Johnny. He has no friends. . . The only time he comes alive, you know, is on camera. The moment the camera goes, so does he.”
No longer invited to appear on Carson’s show, and with Cavett exiled from ABC to PBS and finally to oblivion, Capote made few TV appearances once the ‘80s arrived. His body of work, small as it is, would finally have to speak for him.
“I think everybody who’s been to school in the last twenty years and has taken an English course has to have read at least one story of mine because they’re used in almost all English courses,” he said. “So many books that are done for schools print that story of mine, A Christmas Memory. And anybody in any kind of journalist course has read In Cold Blood. . . At least fifteen million people in this country have read In Cold Blood because I’ve sold almost that many copies of the book.”
Capote’s most famous and acclaimed book sold another million or two copies in 2005, the year that the film, Capote, with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar winning performance, reached theaters. Thanks to that film, and the similar Infamous, released a year later, Capote, the personality and the writer, enjoyed a joint comeback.
© 2010 Brian W. Fairbanks
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