Sunday, March 15, 2015

"Lisa" (on a strange encounter on the L.A. Rapid Transit bus)


On March 12, 2015 I attended a film with my friend Thérèse Bachand, Wild Tales, by Argentine filmmaker Damián Szifron. When I go to the Landmark Theater on Westwood Blvd and Pico Avenue in Los Angeles, I often travel by bus, taking the Rapid Metro from near my home to Westwood, and then catching a Santa Monica Blue #8 Bus to Pico. 
     The journey is not particularly an arduous one, but with my recently “reconstructed” metal knee, particularly after sitting for a few hours in the theater, I suffer some pain and stiffness. Accordingly, as I entered the Wilshire Bus to return home, which was quite crowded at that hour, I looked for a nearby seat in the “elderly” front section. All seats seemed to be taken, and many young people around me were standing; suddenly I spied one seat beside a rather fierce-looking woman. On the seat next to her she had piled two or three plastic bags and, apparently, had no intentions of removing them.
     The film I had just seen was about a series of men and women who, frustrated with the seeming injustices of everyday life, found themselves arguing and even physical battling with strangers, friends, and family members, often resulting in physical and psychological destruction, and even death.
     I moved toward the seemingly oblivious woman. “Might you please move your bags so that I might sit there?” I asked.
     “No!” she curtly shouted out.
     Almost courting the confrontations I witnessed in the movie, I repeated: “I’m asking you, please move your bags.”
     “No!” she repeated, even more loudly.
     “You’re very rude.” I stated in an even voice.
     “I can be rude if I want to!”
     I turned away, hanging on the strap against the jarring jolts of the road, my knee growing somewhat more stiff just from the agitation; a young Hispanic man standing next to me whispered, “It’s not worth the battle,” a conclusion with which I quietly assented.
     “I don’t need to hear any crap from you,” shouted the still angry harridan. “Why don’t you stay white and die!”
      I looked back at her. It seemed an odd statement, since she appeared to me to be white herself. But perhaps she was simply a very light-skinned Black woman. I wanted to stare her down, to shame her if I could by silence. But instead, I turned away again in pretended diffidence.
      Almost immediately she pulled out her cell phone and called what a few moments later the entire front bus perceived was probably her daughter. Her conversation was clearly meant to be overheard, as she explained to the woman at the other end of the line how the doctors were refusing even to treat a man, apparently her husband, and were  “just allowing him to die.” “I want to bring him back home,” she emphatically called out. “As soon as he gets stable, I want to bring him home."
      Some disagreement must have occurred on the other end of the line, for she responded, even more loudly, “They’re not doing anything for him! Just giving him shots! He can’t even get a bed! I don’t want him to die that way. I always thought he might get hit by a bus,” she embarrassedly giggled, “but I don’t want him to die this way.”
      Another short pause ensued. “I don’t know what I’m going to do? I’ll have to deal with it when it comes. But he has to come home. They’re not caring for him!”
      Abruptly, she put away her phone.
      I looked back a few seconds later, just to see how she was responding to the quick closure of her conversation, when I suddenly observed that she had removed the bags from the seat next to her, and, patting the empty space, was beckoning for me to sit there.  
     Given her sudden change of heart, I now had no choice but to obey her request. 
     “I apologize,” I said as I sat, “if I was short with you. You’re obviously under a great deal of duress.”

      “I am. But I shouldn’t have spoken that way to you,” she blurted out.
       The others, sitting on the side benches, had suddenly seemed to awaken with the surprise shift of the situation. An older Black woman quickly blinked out a message that seemed to suggest “My Lord, what a miracle!” The older man sitting immediately in front of us, turned back to the woman he had previously been trying to ignore, kindly saying, “You know, there are people who will come to you, into your home, and help. They’ll help relieve his pain, help him to die if he’s dying. They’re very nice.”
     “I can’t afford anything like that,” she declared.
     “They don’t charge you directly; I think they bill your medicare or insurance.” I continued the conversation. “They’re hospice workers, dedicated to helping people at home comfortably die. And they truly do wonders.”
     “Is it serious?” asked the elderly man.
     “He’s in the ER. Been there since yesterday. But they can’t find a bed for him. They wanted to put him in a dormitory, but it doesn’t offer any nursing or emergency help. If something happens you still need to call emergency”
      “And I bet you haven’t slept since then?” send the kind man across.
      “No, I haven’t been able to sleep at all. I’m cross and mad.”
      Again she turned to me. “I’m sorry I spoke to you that way.”
      “I don’t blame you. You need to get some rest too in order to help him, to be there for him,” I spoke out, as if I were suddenly a traveling nurse or bus-bound psychiatrist.”
      “Yes,” said the gentleman. “I’ve been through that with my parents. You have to rest just to have the strength."
      “I’ve been saying that sleep is much over-rated.”
      “But necessary still.” I responded as tenderly as I might. “You ask a nurse about the hospice workers. They can tell you about them and give you a phone number."
      The formerly angry monster was now almost in tears, in part because, I believe, of the friendliness with which she had suddenly been treated. The bus stopped again, and a young Korean girl got on and walked past us.
      “Never seen an Asian girl with so many pimples,” the woman suddenly blurted out.
      I uncomfortably turned a bit in my seat. 
      “Can I tell you a joke,” the strangely behaving woman asked. 
      “Sure.” Did I have a choice?
      “Why does the Easter Bunny hide his eggs?”
      “I don’t know,” I played dumb.
      “So that people don’t know that he’s been fucking the chickens.”
      For a moment I was flummoxed. The only way I could comprehend the strange shift in our conversation was to think about it as a kind of gift, a piece of humor she was offering me for free as present for the sorrow she had just laid upon me.
     A moment later she laid her head upon my shoulder. 
     “You don’t know how good this feels,” she said.
      “It’s yours. How far you going?”
      “To Western, and then on down.” Her statement seemed to suggest that she lived in South Central Los Angeles, and it hinted at her poverty, as had her clothing, the almost flesh-colored blouse which opened sloppily at the neck to reveal her rather large breasts. Her hair was a mess, a mass of knots with a large portion of it wrapped up in a larger knot atop her head.
      The bus drove down Wilshire through Beverly Hills, one of the wealthiest communities in the world, while this obviously poor, suffering, and quite confused woman, obliviously glided through it, her thoughts overwhelmed by the difficulties ahead.
       When we reached Fairfax, I turned to her, explaining I was about to leave the bus. “I hope you find some help and things get better for you.”
       “Thank you so much,” she nearly gushed, holding out her hand to be grasped, “My name is Lisa.”
      “My name is Douglas,” I responded as I lurched through the front and out of the bus.
      I marched off into a life so very different from Lisa’s. All I could keep thinking of was Rodney King’s simplistically profound question asked of the City’s citizens on May lst, 1992, just before the cessation of the racial riots of that year: “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?” 

Los Angeles, March 13, 2015

Friday, March 6, 2015

"Gidget Goes Yiddish" (on Kathy Kohner Zuckerman and the Gidget books and movies)

gidget goes yiddish
by Douglas Messerli

Frederick Kohner Gidget (New York: Berkeley Books, 1957)

Gabrielle Upton (writer, based on the novel by Frederick Kohner), Paul Wendkos (director) Gidget / 1959

My editorial assistant, Pablo, grew up in Malibu near Topanga Canyon, so it might have been natural for him, I imagine, to grow up as a surfer; in truth, he tells me, he discovered one of his passions only at the age of 20, after he had returned to the U.S. from a lengthy stay in Austria, the homeland of his father. His small press, Brass Tacks, primarily publishes works about and by Malibu figures, and one of his best-selling titles is a book on the surfing culture. It figured, accordingly, that among his friends was the model for the popular book and movie Gidget and all the Gidget Goes—fill in the blanks—that followed. Pablo often encounters her when he attends surfing events. 
     For several years now, I have been aware of the fact without thinking much of it. But just recently he mentioned to me something that took me a bit aback. Having read my piece about my early friendship with Isaac B. Singer, Pablo casually mentioned one day that Gidget—whose real name is Kathy—had also met Singer and cooked him a vegetarian meal. Her husband, Marvin Zuckerman, so Pablo told me, was a professor, a scholar of Yiddish, and had translated, with a friend, an older collection of somewhat raunchy Yiddish sayings, which they titled Yiddish Sayings Mamma Never Taught You. They’d already gotten a quote for the book’s cover by Henry Miller, and wanted one, as well, from Singer, since he was one of most well-known and last of the great Yiddish writers. Seeing that Singer had been invited to speak at a Ojai summer camp for Conservative Jewish college-age women, Zuckerman went to the leaders of the camp and got himself invited to the weekend events, where he chaired a panel on Yiddish poetry.
    In Ojai he met Singer, gave him a copy of his Yiddish Sayings, and offered to drive the writer back to Los Angeles to the airport, on the way inviting him to lunch at the Zuckermans’ Pacific Palisades home. He called his wife, Kathy, who invited her own and Marvin’s parents to join them as well.

  Image result for David Zuckerman Kathy Zuckerman    The event, so I have since read, was a joyful one, if not terribly eventful; but it did lead to Singer composing a short comment for the cover of their book and resulted in the elderly author reading the Gidget novel, writing back that he thought it was a far better novel than Nabokov’s Lolita.

     But before I even read about their encounter in an article by Zuckerman, I was astounded by the very idea of Singer meeting the original Gidget, a kind of absurdist collision, it appeared to me, of high and low culture, of old world wisdom crashing against the rocks of American pop. Of course, I had not really bothered to reckon with the fact that Gidget was no longer a boy-loving teenager but was now a handsome woman, a few years older than me. Amused by my reaction, Pablo brought me a copy of the original novel, signed “Surf On! Love Kathy Gidget Kohner,” the cover announcing not only that the book was written by Kathy’s father, Frederick Kohner, but that it now contained a forward by Kathy Kohner Zuckerman. The back cover described the story as being about “a girl’s coming-of-age in the summer of 1957” (one of my very favorite childhood years) and suggested that Gidget (named Franzie in the novel) was “part Holden Caulfield, part Lolita.” I now had to read it.

     So between studying the two tomes on the monstrous Holocaust murderer, Adolf Eichmann, discussed in “Opposing Banality” in this year’s volume, I quickly devoured the rather charming, semi-biographical story of young Kathy falling in love with surfing and the boys who somewhat reluctantly taught her. Frederick Kohner, a screenwriter, is no J. D. Salinger, just as his Gidget is no Holden Caulfield. Although told in a vernacular first person, Gidget’s tale reveals that as much as she may have felt like an outsider, she nevertheless wanted very much to be part of the culture around her, one slightly less worldly than the life of her own parents, Jewish Czech émigrés, represented. Even less happens in the novel—at least until the last scene—than in the movie, perhaps, in part, because her father wasn’t able to successfully describe the process of learning how to surf, a central feature of the Gidget franchise. Franzie tells terrible whoppers to her parents in order to sneak out each day to the beach, gets “lousy tonsillitis,”  falls “desperately” in love with Moondoggie (who in real life, it turns out, was our artist friend, Billy Al Bengston), and, in an attempt to make Moondoggie jealous, hangs out in the older “great Kahoona’s” hut. Uninvited, Gidget nonetheless attends an evening celebration described by some of her friends as an “orgy”—a word she doesn’t know the meaning of—which goes awry when several of the celebrants take torches in hand for a midnight surf and accidently start a canyon fire that threatens disaster akin to the Malibu fires of 1956 and 1958 (there were also big fires in 1970 and 1982, and in the worst fire of 1993, my friend Jerome Lawrence, who lived a short distance from the beach on Las Flores canyon, lost his beautiful canyon home and all his theatrical memorabilia). The day is saved in the fiction by a miraculous downpour of rain that immediately puts out the flames! The novel ends, accordingly, with Gidget almost becoming involved in a calamity and, later, being the cause of an intense fight between the great Kahoona and Moondoggie. Either event might have landed her and others in jail. 1957, however, was a far different time than the one in which we now exist. Despite her scrapes with danger, Gidget remains as virtuous and innocent as the “nice” tom-girl portrayed by Sandra Dee a short while later.
    The movie script by Gabrielle Upton (Gillian Houghton) understandably ditches the heavy drama of the fire, focusing instead on Francie’s (the name the movie gives to Sandra Dee) attempts to make Moondoggie (James Darren) jealous, with the younger surfer fighting the Kahoona, while simultaneously becoming aware that his hero is not someone who truly deserves to be admired. Ironically, the two teenagers later meet up through parental connections, and fall in love all over again, while discovering that Kahoona is a kind of fraud, who now will work in the off-season as a pilot instead of traveling off to Hawaii or Peru as his legend has it. Cliff Robertson as the Kahoona, in fact, saves this film from its juvenile sentimentality by hinting at far darker aspects of life. A loner who parades as a hero before teenage boys, the “big” Kahoona (he is no longer referred to as “great” in the film version) obviously gets his kicks out of serving as friend-cum-father to these surfers who obviously feel out-of-sync with the rest of their lives.

      The movie, moreover, unlike the book, actually attempts to explain surfing by showing the rush Gidget gets from the sport. The long shots (with veteran surfers such as Miki Dora and Mickey Munoz) of the surfers against the waves—as opposed to the cheesy closeups in which the cast is required to pose in silly grins with arms spread out pretending to balance against a backscreen—truly do reveal the art of the sport played out in the natural beauty of its arena. There are moments when the ocean of Southern California really does look like the paradise it always promised visitors to become. 
     In the novel, the fire required the Kahoona to forever abandon his hut; and in real life, the publication of the novel and opening of the motion picture made the sport so popular that today, so I am told by Pablo, surfers openly resent the hundreds of their fellow kind, somewhat nostalgically imagining the pre-Gidget days. By the time you read this, I will have likely lived up to my promise to spend a few hours at the same beach to watch Pablo “shoot the curl.”
     As I read this short novel, moreover, I also quickly began to perceive that Kathy Kohner, growing up as the “girl midget,” was also a member of Hollywood royalty. Her father had received an Oscar nomination for his 1938 screenplay of Mad About Music, and wrote several other screenplays, including an adaptation of Knut Hamsun’s fiction Victoria (which would surely have interested Singer). Her uncle, Paul, worked in the 1930s as head of the Universal Studios European division, and in 1938 founded one of the most important Hollywood agencies, representing figures such as Marlene Dietrich, Billy Wilder, Greta Garbo, David Niven, Ingmar Bergman, Maurice Chevalier, and Lana Turner. My dear friend, Ken Sherman, worked for Kohner until the great man’s death in 1988, when Sherman founded his own organization, representing Woody Allen and others. Paul Kohner’s daughter, Kathy’s cousin Susan, acted—preposterously as a light-skinned Black girl—in Douglas Sirk’s famed Lana Turner vehicle Imitation of Life. Susan’s sons, Chris and Paul Weitz, in turn, produced American Pie and About a Boy, and acted together in one of my favorites, Chuck & Buck. Paul also wrote and directed In Good Company, American Dreamz, and other works. I write of Imitation of Life and Paul Weitz’s interview of his mother at The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in My Year 2009.
     It gradually became clear that it wasn’t at all so strange that Singer and Gidget had met. My own friendship with him, as the result of a course at the University of Wisconsin, was far more odd, even though I had read most of his writing at the time of the course and we shared a deep admiration for the writing of Knut Hamsun (despite the abhorrence of his political views). 
     On the evening of March 3, 2015, Pablo and I spoke with Kathy Kohner Zuckerman, the original Gidget, at the well-known Malibu eatery, Duke’s, which at the intersection of the Pacific Coast Highway and Las Flores canyon, is devoted to the surf culture, which spread from Hawaii throughout the world. Zuckerman is described as “Ambassador of Aloha” at the restaurant, and spent much of our conversation darting in and out of our company as she greeted guests and engagingly spoke with the various diners. At the age of 74, Kathy is perhaps more involved with her childhood namesake than she has been for her 50 years of marriage to Marvin. As she noted in a recent interview, “With the reissue of the book, I immersed myself in reliving the past. I have become an honorary member of the Malibu Surfing Association.And my first reaction was that, despite her definitely “perky” personality, there might be something a bit sad about such a re-immersion in the past, emblematized, in my imagination, by a grandmother desperately attempting to find balance on a Hobie vintage longboard. 
     It turned out, however, that Kathy was not as heavily engaged with her youth as she might first appear. When Pablo, who was raised in an émigré Austrian family, asked whether it was true or not that her family were originally Czech, “Gidget” deflected his question with a shrug: “I don’t know. I’m not Austrian. I’m not Czech. I’m Jewish, that’s all I know.”
     “So, do you recall your afternoon with Isaac Singer? What did you serve him?” I dived in.
     “Well, he was a vegetarian!”
     “Yeh. But did you cook him a special vegetarian dish?”
     “Oh, I don’t remember. I do recall that that was the day I discovered that all our silver had been stolen. I opened the drawer to set the table and found all the knives, spoons, and forks were missing!”
     “That must have been a shock.”
     “It was. So I hardly remember much about Singer now. I don’t think I knew much about his writing. I mean, I knew was a famous writer, but I hadn’t really read his work. My husband, Marvin, had. He particularly liked The Magician of Lublin.”
     She jumped up to greet a newcomer, returning a short while later. I asked: “I know that in your own life there was no beach luau, no fight between the Kahoona and Moondoggie, and in fact, no Moondoggie (the real Moondoggie, Billy Al Bengston today claims he hardly knew Gidget). But how did your father come to invent the somewhat dark apocalyptic ending with the surfer’s torches setting the canyon on fire?"
     “Was there a canyon fire? I don’t remember that.”
     “Which ended, miraculously, with a heavy rainfall. Hardly likely given the Santa Ana winds the book hinted at. The event didn’t show up in the movie. Do you remember why Frederick might have imagined such an event?"
      “They used to have torches in the night-time ski events at Sun Valley. I’m sure that’s where he must have gotten it. Sun Valley.”  
      “I know that originally you had wanted to write the story. But your father, who after all worked as a writer, said that he’d write it for you. But it might have been interesting to read your version. Had you ever thought of rewriting it?”
      “Well I did write lots of diaries during those days.”
      “Yes, I’ve seen a video where you read from them. They were quite straight-forward about sexual matters, particularly for the time.”
     “Well we ‘made out’ a lot, but nothing serious ever happened!”
    “Yes, I remember 1957 very well. Those were more innocent times.”

     “Well, I don’t know how innocent I was!” she openly laughed.
     “I certainly was! Maybe it was different in California.”
    “Where did you grow up?”
    I slightly grimaced. “Iowa.
    “Oh, Iowa. I went to Iowa once with an actress friend of mine who grew up there. We went to Mason City.
   “The town where my brother was born; it’s the original ‘River City’ of The Music Man!”

 “And she took me to Clear Lake.”
    “Really? That was the town in which I lived as a very young child, on one of the few naturally-formed lakes in the state.”
    “I loved it. Iowa. It was pretty.” 
    Strange, I thought to myself, that Gidget had visited only cities noted for their water views in a state that is remembered mostly for its good soil and crops.
     After another few minutes’ absence, she returned. “In some senses you and your family were part of Hollywood royalty.” I continued. “Your uncle Paul was one of the most famous agents in the city. Did you ever meet any of his famous clients?”
     “Nope. I never met any of them. But my aunt, Lupita, believe it or not, is still living! She’s 104.”
     “Really. Wasn’t she a dancer? I know your mother was a dancer?
     “Well, my mother did some dancing before my time. But no, Lupita Tovar, Paul’s wife, was a Mexican movie star.”
     “Oh yes, now I remember reading that. She was in the Spanish version of Dracula.”
     “She was in lots of films. But no, I never knew much about my uncle’s business dealings.”
     When Pablo left for a few minutes, Gidget suddenly became the motherly figure she had obviously been for so many years. “He’s such a sweet boy, isn’t he?”
     “Yes, Pablo is very special,” I agreed. “And he’s a wonderful designer.”
     “I like him a lot. I feel he needs someone to look after him.”
     “Well, I can’t exactly play his father; he has one. But I do care about him. And try to help him the best I can. But he’s so talented and bright. And morally grounded. He’ll do well.”

      The growing waves outside the window roiled in heavily. A high tide was expected for the next few days. Pablo returned.

      “You have sons. Two?”

      “Yes two.”

      “What do they do?”

      “Well, David has a computer site. He calls himself a “handler.” People write him with their ideas and needs, and he connects them with others we can help them attain them.”

      “So he’s a kind of agent too?”

      She paused. “Yes I guess he is. I never thought about it that way.”
      “And your other son?”
     “Phillip. He’s a sociologist.”
     “Well, that’s interesting.”
     “He’s a professor at Pitzer College. Actually he writes about religion. Only he’s a secularist. You should look him up on the computer. He’s really quite famous. He’s got a new book out from Penguin.”
      I did “look him up,” and found an impressive list of publications, including Faith No More and Society without God.
      “Well, I’m on the move again,” she laughed, standing and returning to the surrounding crowds of the popular restaurant.
      About a half hour later, Kathy circled back our way. “How long are you guys hanging around?”
      “Well, I think we’ll soon be going.”
      “Too bad. I always try to catch a ride home. I hate driving.”
      It’s kind of funny, I later commented to Pablo, Gidget always had a car with surfboards stuffed into it. And here she is today, an old woman, hitch-hiking her way home.
      “Does your husband Marvin ever join you at the restaurant?”
      “No, he stays at home and watches television,” she giggled.
       I realized, suddenly, that Kathy Kohner Zuckerman wasn’t living in the past. She simply enjoyed the company of others, just as she had as a young Gidget hanging on the beach so long ago.

Los Angeles and Malibu, February 23, March 1, March 4, 2015