Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Five Tales from Ischia: The 3rd Tale (Lady Walton and the Croaking Frogs)

On the morning of June 28th, 2007, on my fourth day on the island of Ischia, Marty Nakell, his wife Rebecca, two of his students (Daniel and Nidzára), and I left our hotel near Florio to visit the famed Castello Argonese on Ponte Ischia near the island’s major city, Porto Ischia.

Built by the Syracusan Greek Gerone in 474 B.C., the castle served as a protective fortress for centuries while the surrounding countryside was plundered by various racial and tribal groups, including the Visogoths, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Arabs, Normans, Swabians, and Angevins. In 1301 it served as a refuge against the eruption of the local volcano, Mount Trippodi.

At its greatest “splendor,” it hosted, in the 16th century, 1,892 families, a Convent for Clarisse Nuns, a Greek Basilian Abbey, and a Bishopric and Seminary, as well as the palace of the Prince along with his garrison. There were thirteen churches, seven of which were independent parishes.

In 1809 the English attacked the castle, then owned by the French Aragons, nearly destroying it. In 1823 the King of Naples, Ferdinand I, used it as a political prison for people who opposed Bourbon Power.

The Italian patriot Guiseppe Garibaldi abolished the prison in 1860, joining the whole of Ischia to the Reign of Italy.

Since 1912 it has been owned by private individuals, which explains, perhaps, the existence, a few years ago, of a night club within its confines and today’s rather swanky hotel—which Marty, Rebecca, and I visited. There is also a rather pleasant bar/café at its center, and the Ischia film festival is held in the castle’s confines. The day we visited we saw an art show in the domed church.

But for all its heroic and near-mythical past, it is also a very eerie and somewhat frightening place, a seemingly haunted castle that made us all wonder whether we’d be comfortable staying overnight in that small, elegant hotel.

From the very moment we entered, we encountered that sense of oddness of the place. Martin, who evidently suffers a bit from claustrophobia, determined that he would walk up the several stairs to the top, while Rebecca and I chose the elevator. Once we had entered I quickly pressed a button, realizing at that same moment that I had pressed one warning us not to touch. The door closed and we heard nothing nor felt any movement up, just the quietude of being encapsulated in such small quarters with strangers. After what seemed like a very long while, with an increasing sense of panic crossing Becky’s face, the door opened, presenting us with the panorama of the top floor.

After meeting up again with Marty and taking a few pictures from this palisade of the picturesque city below, he and I checked out the cemetery of the Clarisse nuns, who also practiced, evidently, some very strange ritualistic rites. In the so-called cemetery were numerous stone stools, upon which, so we were told, they sat their sisters after death, permitting their bodily contents to gradually decompose, their essences dripping into the hole below them while the living nuns daily prayed. One can only imagine the stench, to say nothing of the diseases this awful worship of the dead begat.

After a short rest in the shady café while drinking campari and orange, I checked out some of the higher passages of the castle, following my instinct until I had reached an odd room near the very top which appeared like a small prison, but from which one could glimpse a lovely view of the ocean and in the far distance, Capri. After further exploration and meeting up with the rest of Marty’s students, the three of us left the castle, eating a lunch of pesce grilia (calamari, octopus, white fish, with grilled onions, zucchinis, etc) in a small restaurant at the base of Castello Argonese.

For a while I walked the streets of Ponte Ischia before meeting up again with the Nakells and the two students who had come with us, our group taking a small boat across the bay to Coco Beach, where Marty merrily swam and snorkeled out and around three large rocks jutting from the ocean floor. I managed a few side-strokes and dog-paddled close in where my feet could still touch bottom. But even here the sea floor was unpredictable, as I cut my thigh upon a rock—a long gash which the salty sea quickly healed.

Later in the afternoon we walked up to the tower above the beach which, I was told, had once served as Michaelangelo’s studio. There we met a taxi which whisked us back to our Forio-based hotel.

At nine that evening we met up with our hotelier, Maria, who had invited us and several of her favorite German regulars to the Botanical Gardens for a musical concert.

The gardens were stunningly beautiful, but the amphitheatre lies far up the mountain which requires trailing up hundreds of steps. I could hear a couple of elderly German ladies huffing and puffing behind us, we huffing and puffing ahead. Fortunately it was cool, and every once in a while, we briefly stopped to look at the evening lights of Forio spread out below. The city lay behind the stage so that both “performances” were simultaneously visible.

The amphitheatre was a gift of the wife of the late composer William Walton, Lady Susana Walton, who lives still in Ischia today. Playing that evening was a youth orchestra which, consequently, was required to perform at least one William Walton piece—in this case a truly miserable offering. The orchestra, filled with lovely young faces, also played three waltzes by Johann Straus, a composer I cannot abide. Their performance of Gershwin’s American in Paris was a valiant try, but they had difficulties with the constantly changing rhythms and did not seem to understand the jazz aesthetic. More successful was the overture to Fidelio and a charming Boccherini piece—all of these works accompanied by the madly croaking frogs of the nearby pond and the graceful antics of a small bat greedily snatching up insects in the space between audience and orchestra.

After the concert, I joined others waiting in line to greet Lady Walton. “Darling, it was so nice of you to have come,” she took my hand. I invited her to my upcoming reading at a nearby winery. “Thank you so much, my dear,” she replied. She was still beautiful with an elegant head of graying hair. “She must have married Will when she was ten,” I conjectured (in fact, when they married in Buenos Aires, he was 24 years her senior).

On the way down, as we witnessed the youthful orchestra members carrying their instruments the hundreds of winding stairs to the entrance of the park below, we wondered how they gotten the ancient Lady Walton to the top. The Nakell’s had once seen her carried by hand in a kind of chaise through the waiting room of the nearby Naples airport. Had some servile men likewise carried her to the top of these gardens as well?

Down below the taxi drivers were furious over the crowded street and seemingly endless delays. As in Naples, they seem to have the ability to crawl across the nearby walls, and after much swearing and many shouts, we sped away to a Forio restaurant where we dined on a fish stew served with pasta, followed by the remainders of the bones which we each sucked dry.

Florio, Ischia, July 2, 2007

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Twelve Tales in Another Town: The 10th Tale (Lunching L.A.)

John De Lorean

Living in Los Angeles, one inevitably comes across cameras, crews, and actors shooting films and television shows and observes actors at dinner and lunch. Such encounters have never held the charm for me as they do for some. My feeling is that only if one actually knows the actor is there any joy in “seeing” her or him—their role, after all, is to be seen. And whether one encounters them on the home TV set or the large screen, to witness their daily activities offers no special thrill. Moreover, when one actually does get “to know” an actor—Howard and I have become casually acquainted with several, including Steve Martin, Richard Beymer, Harry Hamlin, Mary Waronov, Mary Kay Place, Peter Riegert, Jean Stapleton, among others, one perceives that they are quite ordinary people, often shy, sometimes rather boring folk.

Occasionally, however, friends visit who just have to see a movie star—reminding me a bit of Lucille Ball’s behavior in later episodes of I Love Lucy, when Lucy and Desi go to Hollywood. Ron Mazolla, a former head of the printing company McNaughton & Gunn—the printer I used most often for Sun & Moon Press and Green Integer books—would visit Los Angeles perhaps twice a year, and upon those appearances would ask if we might go to a restaurant where he would see some “stars.” I don’t know why I have never took him to Spago or The Ivy. We did once dine at Morton’s, but we spotted only Hulk Hogan! Ron was delighted nonetheless.

In the real world, moreover, “stars” seldom seem to look like they do upon the screen. At least I have difficulty in recognizing and naming them. On those few occasions where I actually have recognized an actor, it has been met with severe doubts. I recall, for example, a lunch at the former Border Grill on Melrose (a restaurant established by the famous cooking duo of Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger) with poets Michael Palmer and Dennis Phillips, where I spotted Robin Williams among the diners. I quietly mentioned his presence to my table companions. Discretely looking over, they refused to believe it was him—he was so much shorter and older than the “real” actor-comedian.

Consequently, I seldom encounter those individuals who work in film and television, although they frequent numerous of my favorite haunts. Several years ago, I was visited by Eric Miller, who with his brother Bruce was a sales representative for Sun & Moon Press in the Midwest. The Miller brothers, in those days, were an almost comical team; Eric was a bit awkward and what we used to call “clumsy”; I still recall the Miller brothers striding forward to our booth at a BEA (Book Expo America) convention, Eric almost bouncing off his elder brother as they moved in my direction. For all that, the two—sons of the independent publishers of Academy Books—were serious salesmen, representing numerous academic and independent presses. To honor his visit, accordingly, I chose a nice restaurant, Pane Caldo Bistro on Beverly Boulevard in North Hollywood.

As we arrived, we immediately saw that the place was nearly filled up; fortunately I’d made reservations. We were given the last available table, located in what is called in some Los Angeles restaurants, “Siberia,” the table where one would be least likely to be observed. We were seated and waited service for some time. Suddenly my companion Howard appeared out of nowhere, bending to whisper in my ear: “I can’t believe you’re here! I was just discussing the room with one of our secretaries who pointed out Robert Duvall over there. You see him? Right there is Roger Moore, over there Andy Williams. In that corner is Linda Evans. And if you look carefully to the next table, there’s John De Lorean. And then, I saw you!” He laughed, returning to his own table. In all the years we’d lived in this city, we’d never once encountered each other at lunch!

I turned to Eric to share with him the news, but he frowned in disparagement of my comments. “I could care less,” he emphatically responded. “I’m not interested in stars.” If only Ron Mazzola, a man no longer living, had been there in Eric’s stead. He would surely have thought himself already in heaven.

Los Angeles, August 15, 2007

Monday, February 11, 2008

A Quiet Realist

Our friends Brian Kavanagh and Rosemary De Rosa called us from Washington, D.C. on Friday (November 2, 2007) to tell us that the former director of the Hirshhorn Museum, Abram Lerner, had died on October 31st. Howard had heard of the death earlier in the day from Lerner’s life-long friend, Roz Leader, who serves as a volunteer in the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art’s offices.

Lerner, born in 1913, was the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s first director, and oversaw the research, conservation, and installation of the more than 6,000 objects from its donor, Joseph Hirshhorn, whose collection was located in his Greenwich, Connecticut mansion and warehouses in New York.

The museum opened in its new space, designed by Gordon Bunshaft, in 1974. Howard and I attended the museum that first year, and Howard expressed the premonition that somehow his life would be tied up with this museum. In fact, just a year later, Howard was hired by Abram Lerner to be assistant to Cynthia Jaffee MacCabe, curator of the museum’s bicentennial exhibition on American immigrant artists, The Golden Door. With his background in English and American Studies—and with a concentration in American Art—Howard would seem to have been the perfect choice. I’ll never forgot his elation at hearing that he had received the job, news of which he heard in a phone booth at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which we were visiting that day.

Soon after, Howard began his rise as an assistant curator and later, full curator, doing important shows of contemporary art from 1976 until our move to Los Angeles in 1985. One of the first of these shows was a retrospective of the art of Gregory Gillespie (an artist who painted eerily realist Italian and American landscapes until his death by suicide in 2000), a 1977 show curated by Lerner, with Howard as his assistant; together they interviewed Gillespie for the catalogue essay. That show brought Lerner and Howard closer together, and I believe from that point on the director served not only as Howard’s museum supporter, encouraging him to make proposals for shows of his own and to develop his curatorial abilities, but also serving as a kind of father figure, the form of relationship in which Howard, in those days, best functioned.

That is not to say that Lerner wasn’t, at times, a demanding “father”—far less expressive in love than Howard’s real father. A fastidious individual, Lerner once closed down the office kitchen for several days due to its untidiness. Our friend Brian reminds us that for every suit he owned, Lerner had a matching pair of pants so that if we had to wear the suit during the day time, he would have a pair of newly pressed pants at night (Lerner’s father, interestingly enough, worked as a presser in the Garment District of New York). Lerner also had a great sense of moral responsibility, commenting openly on the lack of moral integrity of a few of his colleagues. He was also a man of learning and wit, which served him well, I suspect, as a sort of buffer to the wasp mentality of the upper echelons of the Smithsonian world—with figures such as S. Dillon Ripley, J. Carter Brown, and Paul Mellon—in which he had to function.

Speaking at his farewell dinner, Lerner expressed his feelings that while he certainly had great joy as the head of the museum, he had also suffered some regrets, telling the story about a woman swimming in the ocean with her young son.

“Suddenly a strong wave rolls in taking the boy with it. ‘Ohhh!’ she cries out in horror. ‘Oh G-d, please save my son. I’ll do anything for you if you only save my son!’ Suddenly a new wave comes crashing to shore returning the boy with it. The woman scoops up her child, looking once again to the heavens: ‘So what happened to his hat?’”

Upon discovering that his curator Cynthia MacCabe, divorced from her first husband, was now pregnant, he asked her who the father was. “He doesn’t have a father!” she proclaimed. “Well she wouldn’t be the first Jewish girl to have a virgin birth!” he later quipped.

I remember Abram Lerner as a gentle mentor to Howard and a friend to me. He and his wife Pauline, like Olga Hirshhorn after her husband’s death, were solicitous of the museum staff, on a first name basis with many of the museum’s employees. One afternoon and evening Howard and I were invited with a couple of others for a quiet dinner at the Lerner’s apartment. And I am sure the Lerners often had such intimate gatherings with other staff members as well.

During his last years, Al returned to his first love, painting. “I know the kind of realist painting I do would never be shown in museums today,” he once reportedly said, “but this is the art I love.”

Los Angeles, November 5, 2007

Friday, February 8, 2008

Kier's Secret German Audience

Kier Peters The Confirmation, performed by the English Drama Group (EDG) der Universität Passau, January 25-27, 2007

About twice a year, I check the computer to discover what my playwright pseudonym, Kier Peters, is up to. Over the years I’ve found he’s a fairly busy person, with plays being performed by experimental theatre companies and even at dinner theatres—all of which came as a surprise to me! But in 2007 I came across an even more interesting piece of information regarding his/my plays. The entry that popped up on Goggle sounded very promising, the first sentence reading: “The main topic of conversation, even after seven days, is still The Confirmation, the American play by Kier Peters we came to Bavaria to see.”

The blog of Frank W. Walsh went on to describe how he and his wife, after taking a long taxi ride, quickly found the train from Münich to Passau, arriving two hours later to be greeted by Josh and Jutta. Josh, a teacher at the University of Passau and the director of the English Drama Group, whisked the American couple away for lunch before taking them to Passau’s oldest movie theater, where The Confirmation was being performed. “The place reminds me of the theaters I went to throughout my childhood,” wrote Walsh. “Its concession stand serves popcorn, candy, beer if you like. You came through the doors under where the screen would have been, as in the Pheil Theater in St. Petersburg (Florida) many years ago when Central Avenue was hopping. Then you go up, past rows and rows of chairs to a wide aisle under the projection booth where you can see everything and still have plenty of room.”

“The lights darken,” he continues. “The play begins. But it doesn’t. A four-piece band plays Klezmer music. Foot tapping and stomping.”

“The curtain rises and an American family takes the stage. Then begins the peeling of the onion, layers of revelations. Much of it beyond me.”

Walsh goes on to discuss some of his favorite lines—one in particular uttered by the play’s shikker (Yiddish for a drunk) sister Blanche (speaking only Yiddish throughout the play, which the family believes to be Norwegian), who upon hearing one of her sister’s open a bottle of wine, shouts out: “Did I hear a cork?” With Josh and Jutta, evidently, this American couple “constructed tables with diagrams and arrows delineating relationships to better understand the play,” which had three sold-out performances! “Modern American theater is still alive,” declares Walsh, “—alive and well in Bavaria, Germany.”

The very idea of my crazy American family of women survivors—Grandma, Mother, Sister, Blanche and the family intruder, Sister’s lesbian lover Carmelita—being brought to life in that small Bavarian city nestled between three rivers (the Danube, the Inn, and Ilz) at the border of the Czech Republic, amazed me! As Paul Vangelisti merrily chuckled over the phone the other day—he being one of the few individuals who love such accidental collisions of discovery and event (insidious gaps in life) as I do—“Surely this can’t really have happened, this seemingly lost American couple coming across your play in Bavaria without a clue of what it was about! And you knowing nothing of it whatsoever. You made it up. You wrote this,” he proclaimed. “No one will believe you didn’t. It’s like all the stories in your memoir!”

“I know,” I concurred. “But you and I both realize that I didn’t fabricate a single moment of my adventure in New York with you. And I haven’t knowingly made up anything in any of these volumes to date. Things just happen to me that way. It’s my life.”

“I think they do happen that way to many people,” Paul concluded, “only they block it out, rationalize it away or perceive no significance in the facts.”

Yesterday, as I was about to write about this newest manifestation of my wondrously eventful life, I received an e-mail from Joshua Amrhein, outlining the details of his directorial choice and the performances of my play. Apparently, he’d first dis-covered my short plays, A Dog Tries to Kiss the Sky: Seven Short Plays, in City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, and had thought about performing “Past Present Future Tense” or “A Dog Tries to Kiss the Sky.” “The plays…had an American kind of humor I thought, just ‘dada’ enough for my taste and approachable enough for any audience.” “Well, I wanted to see what else you’d written, and found The Confirmation. Besides really liking the story, and all things to do with grandmothers in general, I felt it was a perfect piece to do with a group mainly made up of women….” “My actors loved it,” he reports, and it beat out David Mamet’s Water Engine. Hearing his response, I could only recall the reaction of my German friend Hans-Jürgen Schadt upon reading the comedy: “I found it very sad, very sad, while my wife kept laughing out loud the whole time.” Perhaps some Germans do share the American sense of humor.

Amrhein apologized for not trying harder to reach me—he had evidently sent an e-mail which I did not receive. I reported that my only regret for not having been told about the production—although an amateur performing fee would be appropriate (he is sending a small payment)—was that I might have flown to Passau to witness it! I was delighted by the production.

We turned Blanche from a Yiddish speaking character, to a Polish figure, he explained, in part because we had a Polish actor playing the part. Coincidence, again, I responded: I originally wrote the part for a Polish actor I had seen in one of Mac Wellman’s plays; she was out of the country, however, during the July 1994 production of that play in New York at the Vineyard Theatre near Union Square.

And who was that visiting American man and his wife from St. Petersburg? His grandfather, who was overjoyed that I had stumbled upon his blog and that he’d been able to be the conduit between author and director!

Los Angeles, November 15, 2007

Soon after writing the piece above, I received an e-mail from US playwright Jeffrey M. Jones (whose plays Love Trouble and J. P. Morgan Saves the Nation I published on my Sun & Moon Press label). He reported that his 16-year-old daughter (“who is absolutely smashing in every way, except when she is cross with her parents), now in her junior year at La Guardia High School of Art, Music & Performing Arts in New York, had been involved with a public showing of her class’s scenework. Students chose their own works, some of which—excerpts from Paula Vogel, Tennessee Willliams, Martin McDonagh, and Adam Rapp—were “what one might expect.” “But the second selection was a very odd piece about a grandmother who had apparently taught one child to speak only Norwegian.”

“I thought there was something awfully familiar about the author’s name, but the context was so astonishing,” wrote Jones, “I had to make sure that Keir Peters was indeed who I thought he was.”

American theater, evidently, is alive and well at La Guardia High School as well as in Passau, Germany!

Los Angeles, January 12, 2008

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Green Integer Blog

In order to help friends and customers of Green Integer keep
more up-to-date, I have begun a new Green Integer Blog,
on which I will regularly post information about new titles,
essays on fiction, poetry, drama, art, music, dance, politics,
and other cultural events, as well as occasional personal
experiences. Some of this material ultimately may also
appear on our Green Integer website (http://www.greeninteger.com/),
but here you can get the first word on what's happening
at the press and what the publisher is thinking.

Douglas Messerli