A GRAVEYARD DANCE

The year I was fifteen, I started my senior year of high school. That September (1962), while I was sitting and watching television, I found a rather big, hard lump near my right ankle. I checked the other leg. No lump there. It was a painless lump. Mom had me visiting a surgeon just a couple of days later.

It turned out to be non-malignant, what is called an osteochondroma. It was, however, pretty big. Big enough so in the short time between seeing the doctor and getting into the hospital, it more than doubled in size.  It had thoroughly wrapped itself around my fibula and the surgeon had to remove a piece of bone and replace it with a pin. I was in no mortal danger, but I was going to be on crutches for at least half a year.

Jamaica High School was (is) huge. Five stories including the basement (swimming pool level) and top floor — the tower where the choir and chorus rehearsed. There were no elevators. No handicapped access. It was also extremely crowded, no place for someone on crutches.

High School, really

Thus I came to be assigned a home tutor. I was not her only client and for reasons of her own, she decided to introduce me to another of her clients.

Mary was older than me, 18 years old. Which, at 15, seemed very mature from my perspective. She was a schizophrenic at a time when the drugs to control schizophrenia had not been invented. She was not at all violent. In fact, she was wonderfully sweet, a brilliant artist … and her view of the world was, to say the least, unique.

She loved cemeteries. Especially at night. One night, we went to see Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? which had just been released.

“Would you like to go?” she asked.

“Sure, why not.” I was always up for a movie. But this one, I didn’t much like. I still don’t. Just … not my cup of tea. Too creepy.

But my night of creepiness was far from over, because after the movie, Mary invited me to visit one of her favorite place … the local cemetery. Through which she happily danced, kissing each of the stones while declaring that these were the happiest of all souls.

Thus began my interest in cemeteries and tombstones. And the end of my brief relationship with Mary. I’m pretty strange in my own way, but that was a bit much for me.

We have great cemeteries here in New England. Old ones with wonderful tombstones, amazing old inscriptions. Come visit some time.

FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN – HOLLYWOOD AND MATURE ACTRESSES – GARRY ARMSTRONG

Marilyn has just written a piece about Feud: Bette And Joan. However, the mini-series about the iconic Hollywood actresses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford plays a peripheral role in Marilyn’s offering.


My take on “Feud” focuses more on Hollywood and its disaffection for older actresses. Things are better for mature film actresses now than back in Hollywood’s “golden age.”  A look the award-winning films of the past year include names like Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep, Annette Benning, Viola Davis,, and Charlotte Rampling. All these ladies are AARP members. The roles essayed by these women are three-dimensional. Free of the “Norma Desmond” caricatures familiar in Hollywood films of the 30’s and 40’s.

Feud: Susan Sarandon (L) and Jessica Lange – December 9, 2016 – Los Angeles, CA
Photograph: Robert Trachtenberg

Feud: Bette And Joan focuses on the Davis and Crawford collaboration, Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? It’s art imitating life imitating art. The movie was a desperation marriage for the two legendary stars who despised each other, but had a common enemy.

The “Suits.”

The studio moguls who regarded their stars as property, not flesh and blood people. La la land titans like Louis B. Mayer and Jack Warner treated women like clothing. Runway fashion for a few years, and then discount goods after they turned 40.

The ladies tried hard. An over-30 Norma Shearer playing Juliet in MGM’s Romeo and Juliet (1936) drew snarky comments from critics who lauded an equally mature Leslie Howard playing Romeo. Remember Ginger Rogers playing a teenager in The Major And The Minor?

There are moments in Feud: Bette And Joan when the two actresses let their guard down and share the bitterness and hatred they feel for the people who feed the publicity machine that can never be satisfied.  Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis and Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford make us believe — because they are mature actresses echoing the paths of two women who made things easier for them today.

Katherine Hepburn.

On a very memorable afternoon in the late 60’s, Katherine Hepburn shared stories about old Hollywood. She didn’t mince words. Almost all the studios bosses were bastards in her book. She felt the same way about most directors — except George Cukor. Hepburn demanded respect, refused to play “younger” and provoked the ire of all who tried to manipulate her. She smiled at me when I told her how I routinely challenged “suits” who wanted me to be a more restrained man-of-color.

Hepburn respected both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. This was 7-years after “Baby Jane” was released. Someone apparently had contacted Hepburn about doing the movie but they were really after Audrey Hepburn. Katherine was considered too old. That little nugget is covered in the FX mini-series.

Katherine Hepburn’s favorite director, George Cukor, confirmed everything she said in a chat with me in the early 70’s. Ironically, I was alerted about Cukor’s arrival at our TV station by our lobby receptionist, “Garry, there’s some old guy named George Cukor here to see you.” Cukor also confirmed the woes faced by Davis and Crawford. He was in the twilight of a magnificent career.

Bette Davis received verbal support from her ex-husband and All About Eve co-star, Gary Merrill.

Gary Merrill.

Over many Bloody Mary’s, he regaled me with stories about life with Margo Channing/Bette Davis. The feuds with 20th Century Fox boss, Darryl F. Zanuck and vain efforts to stay forever young in Hollywood.

Merrill admitted that booze made life easier but made remembering your lines harder. He said Bette Davis found life especially hard after All About Eve. It was all downhill for her, with one bad picture offer after another. Why? Merrill shook his head and pointed at himself, indicating age.

Feud: Bette And Joan resonates with anyone who has worked in front of a camera for more than a few years. Trust me. I know.

FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN — PECULIAR MEMORIES

Garry has written his own version of this story, though it’s completely different. And a little bit the same. For him, it’s Hollywood. For me, it is memories.


In 1962, I was 15 years old, at the beginning of my senior year of high school. The school I attended was a giant of a school in Jamaica, Queens, New York. Five stories high (including the bell tower which was where the choir worked), it was shaped like a giant H. Most of the classrooms were on either end of the H with offices, bathroom, closets and all that stuff along the hallways.

There were no elevators. I suppose it never occurred to the designer of high schools that anyone might have a broken leg or something like that.

Jamaica High School was administered by the New York City Department of Education, which closed the school in 2014. The school’s landmark campus, located at the corner of 167th Street and Gothic Drive, remains open. It is now officially known as the Jamaica Educational Campus. It houses four smaller separately administered public high schools that share facilities and sports teams.

It was September 1962 when I noticed a big lump on my ankle. Pretty big. Hard, and it didn’t hurt. At all. Nothing to indicate it was from a bump or a fall. I ran my hand up and down my leg and thought about it. Probably nothing. At 15, everything is no big deal. But, because I also knew my mother had long and ugly bout with cancer (cancer? kids don’t get cancer!), I called her.

“I’ve got a lump on my leg,” I explained. “Here.” She ran her fingers over it.

“Does it hurt?”

“No.”

“Not even a little bit?”

“Nope. Just a lump. I was going to forget about it, but … you know. What do you think?”

“I think we need a doctor,” she said and promptly arranged for me to see the chief resident surgeon at NewYork Presbyterian Hospital. I should mention it was a great hospital. Compassionate, caring and very concerned for its patients. My mother had excellent taste in hospitals, something that would eventually serve me well as time caught up with me.

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a 1962 American psychological thriller-horror (and very camp) film produced and directed by Robert Aldrich, starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

I was in the hospital in the middle of September. The surgeon — Dr. Waugh, I believe … many years ago and names slip away with time — said I had a tumor. What kind of tumor, he didn’t know and couldn’t know until surgery. If it was benign, they would just remove it and off I’d go into the world, none the worse for wear. If it was the other kind, I would likely lose my leg. The whole leg. I was not happy about that, but at least he didn’t mince words or make me feel like a moron.

A week later, I was in surgery. It wasn’t cancer. Benign but a really big tumor. It had wrapped itself around my tibia and femur. It had crawled up the leg and was in the process of pulling apart the two bones. So not cancer, but also, not nothing. They could not simply remove it. There was too much of it, so they took out a piece of my femur and replaced it with a very hard plastic bone. Packed the leg in whatever that stuff is they use and for two weeks, I slept with that leg on a huge pack of ice.

No getting out of bed for anything. At all. I was not to use that leg for a full six months because the implanted bone needed to set. The nurses used to hang out with me in the evening. They were my pals when I watched Invasion of the Body Snatchers. They checked under my bed to make sure there were no pods waiting for me. Then, it was time to go home.

With crutches.

My high school was gigantic and there was no way I could attend school until my leg finished healing. The school called the home teachers unit. There were, even back then, a lot of students who couldn’t attend regular school. Some had emotional issues. Others had physical problems. Some, like me, were having a temporary setback — broken legs or broken something or other — and needed someone to help them stay up to date. I doubted my absence would make that big a difference, but I worried if I didn’t take the exams as expected, I wouldn’t be able to graduate on time.

I got a teacher.

Are you still with me? Because it gets more complicated from here on.


My new teacher had other students. One of them, a young woman, lived nearby. She was schizophrenic, but also a nice young woman and a talented artist. My teacher thought that I would be good for her. She didn’t have any friends, being out of school. Thus we were introduced.

Mary was seventeen and I was fifteen. For fifteen, I was mature. As a mature person, I was still fifteen. I liked Mary, though she had the strangest eyes. She would look at me and it was as if she were seeing through me. Her pictures looked like that too.

One night, just after What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was released, she suggested we go to the movies. I have never been a fan of horror movies. Not even the terribly fake, silly ones with giant lizards and moths. I would get nightmares, so I wasn’t allowed to go to any of them. It was the screaming in the night thing. It ruined everyone’s sleep.

Photos of Bette Davis & Joan Crawford, The ‘Feud’ characters in life

Mary wanted to see it. Said it would be a hoot. I was amenable. I figured I was not a tiny kid. I could watch a horror movie. I’d be fine, right? Of course I would.

I didn’t go to movies often. They were expensive. My allowance was enough so I could get to school and come home. If I walked rather than taking a bus, I could save the 15 cents each way. If I did it a lot, I could hoard enough cash to go to a movie and even have a coke. Since I hadn’t been going to school at all, I had money saved. We went to the movies.

I was uncomfortable. It wasn’t as icky as things with giant lizards, but bad enough. Yet, the night wasn’t over. Mary said: “There’s this wonderful place I like to go at night. It’s really cool. Wanna come?” What teenager could turn down a great invitation like that?  We went.

It was a nice little grave yard. My friend Mary danced through it, her scarf flowing in the breeze. Then, she ran about, gently kissing the tombstones. She was happy.

SUMMING UP

Garry and I are watching Feud – Bette and Joan. It’s about the making of that particular movie. Garry rather likes it. He knows it’s not a great movie. Probably not even a good one, but he likes it anyway. He knew a lot about the feud of the co-stars because he is into movies big time. This show has juicy bits above and beyond his own juicy bits. Also, he had done a piece with Gary Merrill (one of Bette Davis’ husbands) who had a son in Boston politics. Garry had a few juicy stories of his own.

I merely repeated I didn’t much like the movie, though I admitted I’d seen it in 1962, so I could change my mind. Garry finally asked me what I had against it? “Really,” he said. “It’s just a campy movie with two feuding actresses.”

I explained I had a different take on it. “Didn’t I tell you this already?” I asked him. I was sure we’d told each other everything. How could I have omitted this gem? But I had.

When I was done (and this is not the whole story … there’s more), he said: “You should write that.” And now, I have. This was one of the evenings I can clearly remember — fifty-five years later.

There’s no moral to this story, except that my feelings about What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? are uniquely mine.

Dancing among the tombstones

The year I was fifteen, I started my senior year of high school. That September (1962), while I was sitting and watching television, I found a rather big, hard lump near my right ankle. I checked the other leg. No lump there. It was a painless lump. Mom had me visiting a surgeon just a couple of days later.

Uxbridge Cemetery

It turned out to be non-malignant, what is called an osteochondroma. It was, however, pretty big. Big enough so in the short time between seeing the doctor and getting into the hospital, it more than doubled in size.  It had thoroughly wrapped itself around my fibula and the surgeon had to remove a piece of bone and replace it with a pin. I was in no mortal danger, but I was going to be on crutches for at least half a year.

Jamaica High School was (is) huge. Five stories including the basement (swimming pool level) and top floor — the tower where the choir and chorus rehearsed. There were no elevators. No handicapped access. It was also extremely crowded, no place for someone on crutches.

Old cemetary Uxbridge

Thus I came to be assigned a home tutor. I was not her only client and for reasons of her own, she decided to introduce me to another of her clients.

Mary was older than me, 18 years old. Which, at 15, seemed very mature from my perspective. She was a schizophrenic at a time when the drugs to control schizophrenia had not been invented. She was not at all violent. In fact, she was wonderfully sweet, a brilliant artist … and her view of the world was, to say the least, unique.

She loved cemeteries. Especially at night. One night, we went to see Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? which had just been released.

Cropped screenshot of Bette Davis and Joan Cra...

“Would you like to go?” she asked.

“Sure, why not.” I was always up for a movie. But this one, I didn’t much like. I still don’t. Just … not my cup of tea. Too creepy.

But my night of creepiness was far from over, because after the movie, Mary invited me to visit one of her favorite place … the local cemetery. Through which she happily danced, kissing each of the stones while declaring that these were the happiest of all souls.

Thus began my interest in cemeteries and tombstones. And the end of my brief relationship with Mary. I’m pretty strange in my own way, but that was a bit much for me.

We have great cemeteries here in New England. Old ones with wonderful tombstones, amazing old inscriptions. Come visit some time.