My grandparents, parents and I have crossed paths over the years with some famous people. I grew up hearing stories about people I had heard about in the news and in the popular culture.
For example, at one point, in the early 1900’s, my grandmother lived in a tenement building in the Jewish section of the lower east side of New York City. A cousin of hers lived in the same building. This cousin had a piano. The cousin also had a neighbor whose son was a talented pianist. The problem was that the neighbor didn’t have a piano. So the son, Georgie, would go to my cousin’s apartment to practice piano. Often people gathered at the cousin’s to listen to Georgie play. He was that good. My grandmother went often. Georgie’s full name was George Gershwin.
In the late 1930’s and early1940’s, my mother pursued a career in the theater in New York City. She studied acting at the Actor’s Studio with people like Karl Malden, Susan Strasberg, Stella Adler, Buddy Epson, Gypsy Rose Lee and her good friend, Judy Holliday. The actors hung out with each other at night, often performing for each other. Many famous comedy routines, like Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks’ “2000 Year Old Man” were created and honed at these parties.
My mom particularly remembers watching Zero Mostel, in person, in a living room, perfect his famous imitation of a percolator. He also did imitations of other household appliances. It’s a hilarious bit and I was thrilled to get to see it performed on television after hearing about it from my mom.
Judy Holliday was originally Judy Tuvim and my mom was Ethel Tumen. Judy changed her last name to Holliday and mom took Diana Charles as her stage name. Both girls were asked to come to Hollywood for a screen test. Both were told that they had to lose ten pounds because the camera made you look heavier. So to celebrate the test and mourn the diet, they went out for a last malted together. Soon after, my mom got rheumatic fever and was an invalid for two years. After that, she had to give up dancing, tennis and acting. Judy went on to a stellar theater and movie career until her untimely death at 46 of breast cancer.
Gypsy Rose Lee was the stripper that the musical “Gypsy” was based on. She was a passionate progressive politically and got my mother involved in protesting on behalf of the nascent labor union movement. One day, when they were picketing for the unions, a fight broke out near them and the police moved in. Gypsy got mom out before people started getting arrested.
Stella Adler was a theater actress who later became a famous acting teacher in New York. She was very well-known within the theater community. I have two quotes from her that are worth repeating. At one point, she was giving my mother advice on how to dress to make an entrance and get attention. She told Mom to “Make sure that you wear the dress and the dress doesn’t wear you!” Great advice for anyone, in any era.
The other Stella Adler quote requires a little explanation. For a time, the Yiddish Theater in New York was dominated by two Jewish families, the Adlers (Stella’s family) and the Abramsons (my family). A famous Adler had an infamous affair with an equally famous Abramson. So when Stella was asked how she knew my mother, she replied, “We’re related by bed!”
In 1948, Alger Hiss was accused of being a Soviet spy. His indictment and trial was a huge story. Hiss vehemently protested his innocence for the rest of his life and many people believed that he took the fall in order to protect someone else. His case also catapulted an unknown Congressman named Richard Nixon to national fame.
Alger Hiss was my father’s patient. So my father knew the true story – he was protecting his son, who actually was an agent for the Soviets. The son wrote a damning piece of correspondence on his father’s typewriter, and this document became the lynchpin in the State’s case against his father. I checked Wikipedia and this is still considered to be an unsolved mystery, although historians are now tending to believe in Hiss’s guilt.
The musician, Artie Shaw, was another famous patient of my father’s. One of Shaw’s claims to fame was that he was married to Ava Gardner after she divorced Frank Sinatra.
I’m sure my father told us many of Shaw’s fascinating stories about Hollywood in its heyday. But the only one I remember is purely prurient gossip. Artie Shaw told my father that one of the reasons Ava Gardner left Sinatra after a short-lived marriage, was that Sinatra was not very good in bed. He apparently had trouble getting and maintaining erections and Ava Gardner had no patience for less than stellar performance in the bedroom.
Another Hollywood connection my parents had was their friendship with a movie and theater producer named Henry Weinstein. He was apparently one of the few people in Hollywood who could work effectively with and ‘handle’ Marilyn Monroe. He was the producer of the movie she was working on at the time of her death, “Something’s Got To Give”.
Marilyn was in a very bad place emotionally when she was working on this movie. To make a bad situation worse, her regular therapist and 24/7 hand holder was out-of-town on vacation for several weeks. Even Henry was having trouble with Marilyn. She would show up to the set late, if at all. She had trouble remembering her lines and required an obscene number of takes for every scene. She required constant TLC to get her through the day.
Henry was getting desperate. He called my mom, who was a psychologist, and pleaded with her to come out to LA to help Marilyn. My mom refused because she believed that Marilyn was beyond out-patient help.
Marilyn had also recently been banned from seeing anyone in the Kennedy clan. She was feeling isolated, rejected and alone. Henry said that she sought solace in an affair with the script girl on the set. This was her last relationship. Henry had to fire Marilyn from the movie for excessive absenteeism a few weeks before her death.
Henry’s wife, Irena, was staying with us in Connecticut when Marilyn died in August of 1962. Irena got a call from Henry telling her of Marilyn’s death before the news was reported on TV or in the press. The press kept trying to reach Irena at our house in the hopes of getting more information about Marilyn. So we had to say ‘No Comment’ to multiple callers from the news media.
My own brush with fame came before the person became famous. There was a Black scholarship kid in my high school class named Gil Scott Heron. He was a bright, charming and talented young man who went on to become a well-known soul,d jazz poet, and musician. He was also considered the godfather of rap, specializing in political and social topics.
But when I knew him, he was a mature and rather worldly teenager. He started hanging out with me at school and often called on the phone to talk. One day, in our senior year, he asked me out. I really liked him but I turned him down. This is going to sound silly, but I only wanted to date Jewish boys. So I turned him down, not because he was Black, but because he wasn’t Jewish. So ironic and clearly my loss.
I also went to elementary and high school with Jeffrey Katzenberg, the studio executive and film producer. His older sister was my good friend for several years and we all took the same bus to school. Jeffrey was the one kid who always made the whole bus wait for him. He was always late or he would forget something and would have to go back upstairs to get it. Everyone on the bus hated him. He obviously had ADD or ADHD as a kid. He still has it as an adult and I’ve read that his staff have to go to great lengths to work around it.
My parents were good friends with the mother and step dad of “Saturday Night Live’s” Chevy Chase. I went out on one terrible date with Chevy Chase’s brother and was in therapy with his step father for a while. I was shocked to read Chevy’s autobiography and find out that the gentle, quiet step father who I knew as a friend and a therapist, was actually a brutal, autocratic, abusive sadist! You never know what goes on behind closed doors.
My parents were also old friends with the author, Howard Fast and I went out a few times with his son as well. That son went on to marry Erica Jong, for whatever that’s worth!
So these are some of my family’s brushes with fame. Most of them are pretty minor, but the stories were cherished by the family and retold often. They are part of the family lore. So they get a blog of their own.