Lip Service

Both Joanna and Howard told stories. Each, in their own way, got great pleasure or solace and certainly sustenance from their tales. One told the truth and the other told lies. The lies were fanciful and wild and seemed to be true. The truth was fanciful and wild and seemed to be lies. Both changed my perception of what is real.

 

JOANNA

            In all the years I knew Joanna, I only saw her a handful of times in person. Our pre-internet relationship was conducted on the telephone. But from the few times we met in person it was clear to me that Joanna was like a deposed Romanoff Princess. In her bearing and style, she was to the manor born. Now demoted and dethroned due to her health and economic status, she was an East Side lady resigned to spending her days on the West Side. Daddy had been some kind of diplomat and Joanna, who never mentioned her mother, was a “daddy’s girl.” When I went to London, she demanded I bring her back “Harrods’s Finest Selected Stilton Cheese” in a port ceramic jar container with a black lid. No other would do. This, she swore, was what Daddy brought back when she was a little Upper East Side princess in training.  Just the feel of the ceramic jar in her hands and the smell of the cheese as she lifted the lid took 40 years off of her.

 

HOWARD

            If Joanna’s spiritual home was 63rd and Park, Howard’s was the Seventh Avenue garment district in New York’s West 20s.  The family business was the rag trade, though Howard himself aspired to theatrical heights. In the days when Howard grew up, Broadway and Seventh Avenue were illicitly wed.  Husbands from the Midwest, the South and the Coast, the buyers for stores all over the country came to New York and expected not only rags from which to pick, but first class entertainment. To this end, the New York garment people would procure tickets for the out of town buyers and show off the latest Broadway musical, preferably one with leggy chorus girls, thus inventing the tired businessman musical on their very own sewing machines. When Howard was a little boy, the family business, like retired Jews, moved to Miami, so Howard was denied his beloved Broadway and started making up his own shows.

 

What draws a person to you and vice versa? Sometimes it is mutual attraction, but often, as in both of these cases, it can be one person, like a vampire in a mirror, sucking the lifeblood out of its reflection, as the reflection inflates.

I first met Joanna in the early nineties, in last century, after a concert celebrating the songs I had written up to that point. I had a whole performing career before this time, but from the mid 1980s I concentrated on finding top notch composers and projects to write.  Knowing that I, as the book and lyric writer, wrote faster than most, I sought out different collaborators so that each pot on the stove had its own boiling time. By this time, in 1993, I had at least three or four pots simmering. The musical end of the concert was well taken care of by the composers who mostly played their own music. The late afternoon event had been a triumph for me. I was lucky and/or industrious enough to have several of the top musical theatre talents in New York singing my words and in theatre parlance, it “landed.”

But landing wasn’t always enough. The invited producers and movers and shakers didn’t show up that day. I would be landing back in the unemployment office soon. Even as the applause rang in my ears, I was desperately thinking of how I could move my songwriting career to the next level. I was also thinking about how I would pay next month’s rent.

On my way out of the auditorium I was besieged by a pair of giant lips rushing toward my behind in a guise of a tall, imposingly well dressed woman with tears in her eyes.

“You are a genius!” the raspy, cultivated voice with a slight New York accent intoned. My ego being already inflated by the audience response took those four words as the gospel. Of course, this inflated me further so that I practically floated about the small, cramped vestibule while she talked.

“I’m Joanna First!”

Of course she was. She could never be second or third or fourth. She was first. First daughter, first wife, first fan…even if there were others, she insisted on being first in my heart.

“We are going to be great friends,” she continued, “because I am going to do everything in my power to make sure you become everything you deserve. And that means rich and famous.” She practically salaamed before me. How could I not believe every word that poured out of heavily lip-sticked mouth? And I must admit, with little in the bank, it was those words “rich and famous” that hooked me.

So when the phone rang the next day, I answered it.

“Do you have a lawyer? You’ve got to have a good theatrical lawyer. My boss is the best in town and she will help you.”

“But I don’t need any help right now.”

“Of course you do, darling. Having a good theatrical lawyer can make all the difference and she will do me the favor. She owes me.”

Joanna was some kind of paralegal secretary.

“Well, I am about to sign a contract with a big theatrical agency,” I said.

“Perfect. She will go over your contract and advise you accordingly. Have it messengered over tomorrow.”

I told her that I couldn’t afford a messenger and that I would bike over to the office and drop it off myself.

“Make sure you ask for me and then I will get the papers to her.”

I knew that this was totally unnecessary as I was going to sign this contract even if the terms were monstrous. I needed and wanted to be represented by this agent, who was also an old friend. But, since this lawyer was going to do a favor for Joanna, why not let her look at the papers? It would establish a relationship and, maybe when I was richer and more famous, I would need her legal services.  So I biked over to the East Side office where Joanna worked, asked for her at the desk and handed her the manila envelope containing my agency papers. I rode home and waited for the phone to ring.

About a week later the lawyer called and told me that the agreement was “the usual over-reaching agency crap,” but that it seemed okay to her. I thanked her and didn’t tell her that I had already signed the contract a few days before. I put it all out of my head until the invoice for 900 dollars arrived.

“Joanna! She charged me 900 dollars! I thought this was a favor.”

“It was, darling! She gave you my ten percent discount because you’re family.”

“I can’t afford this.”

“Do you want me to go in and make a huge fuss? Because I will.”

“No. No. I’ll just bite the bullet. The dog can just not eat for a week.”

“Oh no! I’ll pay your bill.”

“The 900 dollars?”

“No, for the dog food. Mr. B. always had me feed his dogs.”

“Who is Mr. B?”

“Darling! Mr. Balanchine of course. ”

“You knew him?”

“Knew him. He was my brother, my father, my son. I was at his beck and call and he was at mine. Now that he’s gone, I’m a Jacques girl.”

“Excuse me?”

“Never mind, dear. What are you working on now? Tell me all.”

“Aren’t you at work?”

A deep sigh emanated from the phone.

“I’m home today. I wasn’t well and I’m near death and my bosses know I can only work so many hours until I crave, nay, need my artistic nourishment. I’m like a woman parched in a desert dreaming of a perfect chardonnay. Now, tell. Hurry and don’t leave out a word. What genius lyric have you written today?”

And of course I read her my latest and greatest and she literally swooned over the phone. The shallow little intakes of air and the gasps of delight made it clear that I was doing this woman a service. That my genius was literally keeping her alive. Every word I uttered was mouth to mouth resuscitation without the pesky germs.

Our phone calls went from daily to six or seven times in a twenty-four-hour period.  Sometimes I dreaded seeing her number come up on my caller ID, but how could I not answer the phone? Could I kill her? Never. And who knows, I thought, she might really know the right people to help me.

 

Years later, with the advent of Facebook, I met Howard. Of the 10,000 fans of obscure musicals, “forgotten” we called them, Howard stood out as someone who knew his onions, or at least his Flahooleys.  Our online relationship blossomed when he began to praise my work. A pattern? Oh yes.

We were mostly “Facebook pals,” until a mutual Facebook friend died and we decided to actually meet at my neighborhood diner.

Howard was a nice middle-aged Jewish guy. He was your cousin or your brother or your childhood friend rediscovered. He didn’t dress too well, which made you feel just fine or better when you showed up in jeans or shorts to a special event. Howard was, as a landsman might say, “a mensch.” He was “one of the guys.”

We started seeing each other more at midtown theatres and Chelsea diners. I invited him to presentations of my latest shows, concerts of my work. When I wrote and directed an off-Broadway musical, Howard came to at least ten performances. He loved my show. I ate up his praise with a spoon.  As time when on, Howard and I became more than virtual friends and I introduced him to my collaborators and he glommed on to their talents with a suction-like force.

One day at the diner, just after I had my umpteenth bike stolen, Howard presented me with a six-inch miniature red roadster, with practical doors and a trunk that really opened, so I could “get around” as he put it. It was a sweetly thoughtful gift meant to make me feel better. It worked. The car was a great little toy that fit in my knapsack and luggage. In fact, the red car fit so well in my luggage that it took many fabulous trips around the world with me and was photographed more than the Kardashians. It trekked from the beaches of Asbury Park to Chicago’s Miracle Mile to the desert sands of Arizona, where one of my shows was being produced. The Facebook photos of the car against a variety backdrops became as famous as any Cecil Beaton portrait. Howard reveled in his social media fame and vicariously came along with me and the little red car on our journeys as surely as if he were tucked into the tiny practical trunk.  At our weekly diner lunches, the toy car’s latest jaunts were discussed and enjoyed. Howard and I also enjoyed talking about our great love of musical theater and how we both had cried over the overture of the latest revival of the most obscure musicals. I would tell him my latest travails toiling in the mine fields of contemporary musical theatre writing. His optimism lifted my spirits and allowed me to write one more day.

Howard’s love of musicals pushed him to write one as well. I was flattered when he told me that I was his inspiration.  And when he asked me to direct a reading for him out in Los Angeles, I was flattered and naturally said yes. In my mind’s eye, I saw myself branching out and directing other people’s musicals. Why not Howard’s?

 

Joanna and I continued our relationship via phone, but once in a while we actually met in person. Of course, she would make many dates and not show up, claiming illnesses that would not allow her to leave the sanctuary of her own abode near her own toilet. There was that expensive dinner party she instigated at my apartment with her boss, the lawyer and her husband, the booking agent. Joanna felt that I should know them better and although I had already paid this lawyer 900 dollars, I made sure that the dinner for four would be sumptuous. Par for the course, Joanna called in sick for that dinner as she did for many other dinners after. Despite my famous chicken and rice dish, nothing came of the relationship with the lawyer and her husband. Joanna’s frequent and dramatic illnesses caused me to dub her “Fosca” after the character in Sondheim’s Passion. The perpetually sick woman who would never die. Or show up for dinner.

But once, Joanna actually showed up. She came to see one of my shows and we all went out to a restaurant.

“I’m sorry, Madam,” the maitre ‘d intoned in a superior voice, “there are no tables near the rest rooms. In fact, we are booked solid. I could seat you at the bar.”

Joanna was having none of that. Her Upper East Side manner turned to Lower East Side fishwife as she screamed at the haughty ex-waiter.

“I HAVE CANCER! I need to be sitting at a good table. I HAVE CANCER!”

Needless to say, we got a very good table.

“Look over there! It’s Jack,” she exclaimed between sips of her Kir Royale. “We grew up together. He was like a brother to me. JACK! JACK!”

I was mortified. “Who is Jack?”

“Jack McMann of course! The famous Broadway director. We’re thick as thieves. He just has to know all about you. He will help you. He owes me. Jack! Jack!”

Jack and the entire restaurant turned to see Joanna waving madly in his direction. She got up from the table and pulled me by the hand with the strength of a woman who never heard of cancer.

“Jack, darling! It’s been too long,” she cooed as she bent down to kiss him on the cheek. “You look fabulous.”

A rather bewildered balding fat man stood up and pecked Joanna on the cheek responding, “you look fabulous too…darling.”

“I’m sick and death is nipping at my heels, but I hide it with a Chanel scarf. I have cancer, Jack…but never mind that…you have to meet this young genius. He has written musicals that will shake the earth off of its axis. And you have to direct every one of them.”

As Joanna formally introduced me to the blank face of Jack McMann, I wished for the restaurant to implode or for a convenient hole in which to crawl. Alas, Joanna went on.

“I am going to fax you all his scripts and have his demos messengered to your country house. Is it still the same address?”

“…yes,” Jack responded hesitantly without giving away his address, “I still live there on weekends, but…”

“Oh, the times we had there, Jack. The fun was ceaseless. Remember that pool party when Ellis was still alive? And then the one when he was dead. Even more fun. Oh, how young we were. But let me leave you to your dinner now. I just had to show you your future.”

As we walked away, I could hear Jack McMann hissing under his breath to his dinner companion, as he wiped Joanna’s lipstick from his cheek.

“I never met that woman in my life.”

 

“My Aunt Gertrude was a very modern and bohemian woman. She never married. We all wondered about that, but in those days, they called her a spinster.” Howard said over a bowl of split pea soup with extra croutons. “She moved to Paris in the early 20s, which coincided with her late 20s. Aunt Gertrude didn’t come back to the US until the depression was almost over. She just missed Hitler and his men marching into the City of Light. What luck, right? I mean, she was Jewish like all of us. If she stayed who knows if she would have lived to ninety?”

We were sitting in our usual booth at our usual Chelsea diner where all the waiters know me. I was such a habitue there that many, including Howard, joked that I owned the joint.

“So…back then, Aunt Gertrude had a bit of cash to burn and she loved art.  You know that I was an art major in college, right? I was. In fact, I won several awards that have somehow vanished over the years.  That’s why I know so much about set design. That was my passion and led me to all other aspects of theatre. So…back in Paris in the 20s, Aunt Gertrude bought a painting. All through my childhood it hung in the entrance way of her apartment on Kings Highway in Brooklyn. We would go there for cousins clubs and on Friday nights for Shabbos and all the High Holy Days.  And I would stand there mesmerized by the painting. It was impressionistic and showed the Paris street where she had lived. Or at least that’s what she told us. When Aunt Gertrude died in 1995, she left me the painting.”

I have to admit that this story bored me a bit, as I was far from an art aficionado. Get back to theatre talk, Howard, I thought. I interrupted to ask about two projects we were to do together.

“Howard, when are we doing the reading of your musical in LA? You know I have to book my ticket or will you be doing that? Also, you promised me a recording of the music. How can I direct a reading without knowing the songs?”

“All my cassettes are in storage. I’ll be going to get them out soon.”

“Cassettes? How old is this show? Who uses cassettes anymore?” I asked.

“I prefer to use them when I record my songs. I play everything by ear, you know. I can’t write a note of music. So, the cassettes make me feel more comfortable, like I am doing a classic old-time show, which mine is.”

“Okay,” I said. “What about this Oklahoma! event at your alma mater? Are they going to send a contract for me to come down and direct?”

“Oh,” remembered Howard. “They sent money for you.”

With that, he pulled out five rumpled twenty-dollar bills and pushed them across the table.

“They sent cash?”

“Well, they sent me the check and I’m giving you cash as a down payment on your services.”

“Okay,” I said as I took the money and pushed into my jeans pocket. “So…”

“So let me finish the story about the painting.”

“Oh, of course, what happened next?”

 

“I don’t understand why Jack never got back to us, but never mind, “said Joanna on our 6:15 phone call. “Clay Forrester wants to talk to you.”

“Who?”

“Darling! He is the biggest honcho at Columbia Records. Cy Coleman won’t make a move without him. He the crème de la crème of the record world. He could change your life.”

“And how do you know him?”

“We go waaaaay back. Mr. B introduced me in the 60s when he first worked under Goddard Lieberson…Clay I mean.”

I must have sounded confused.

“You do know that Goddard invented the cast album, right?

“I think that was Jack Kapp at Decca, but never mind.”

“Yes, well Goddard, or God, as he liked to be called, was married to the great Vera Zorina. I know you know that she starred in the original cast of On Your Toes…”

“It was London.”

“Yes, of course. And she danced his Slaughter on Tenth Avenue in the movie version of the show. And she was the Angel in I Married an Angel…”

“Don’t forget Louisiana Purchase, both stage and screen.”

“Yes! All choreographed by Mr. B. And that gorgeous extension of hers made her the best candidate to be Mr. B’s second wife. Of course, later on, they divorced and she married God and danced happily into the sunset. But Mr. B and Zorina and God all remained thick as thieves.  Back when I worked for Mr. B, he introduced me to Brigitte…that’s what her friends called her.”

“Okay…”

“So just yesterday, I was talking to Clay on the phone and of course I was selling you like mad! I want you to call him immediately.”

“But what will I say? Sure, I have shows, but he produces cast albums…I don’t have a Broadway cast to make a cast album.”

“You have to prepare for the future, darling, and he is the best. Tell him Joanna told you to call and then regale him with your wit.”

“My what?”

“Don’t be coy. You are so witty. Just talk to him. And remember, he owes me.”

When I got up my nerve and called Clay Forrester, he was out. The next day I tried again and left a more detailed message about Joanna and her long friendship with Mr. B (I can’t believe I said that into his answering machine) and still no call back. After the third try (I dropped Brigitte’s name!) I gave up. Joanna sloughed it off.

“He must be busy with Cy on some new project. I know he’ll return the call as soon as he can. Now, read me your new lyric, please. Make me forget the fact that I practically live in the bathroom. Oh, also, could you send over some of your latest DVDs. I’ve run out of movies to watch. I’ll use the messenger from my office, of course.”

“I thought you were on a leave of absence.”

“I am. But they adore me at the office and nobody checks the invoices. Oops. Nature calls. Ciao for now, darling.”

As I stared at the phone giving out a dial tone, I started to wonder if anything Joanna said was true.

 

The diner’s large picture windows looked out on Ninth Avenue and the traffic was ceaseless, as were the sirens. I could hardly hear what Howard was saying when he told me that he had a suspicion that the painting might be worth something.

“This was ten years ago and I brought it to the MET where they looked it over and told me that they would clean it and find out if it was worth anything. Of course cleaning cost a lot, so they said, ‘If we find it’s something rare and special, we want the right to show it in our collection for ten years.’ Now that was a big IF, but what the hell did I have to lose? I’ve moved so many times since then that it would have sat in storage anyway. So I gave it to them and signed the papers and forgot all about it. Just last week I got an email that the ten years are up and I should come in and talk to them.”

“Did you?”

“I did. I figured now I could have my painting back and hang it in my new apartment.”

“Speaking of that, when are you moving in? I think a big housewarming party in your fabulous Lincoln Towers apartment with the grand piano is in order.”

“They can’t even fit the grand in the elevator. They had to pull it up on a rope twenty stories and bring it in though the window.”

“Wow. So when are you going to play me your score?”

“Don’t you want to know what happened to the painting?”

“Spill it.”

“Oh, shit,” Howard said when his phone beeped. He read the text and frowned. “We’ll have to continue this next week. I’m late for my spa appointment at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. My usual Friday pampering. And I got a suite tonight. On points. We will talk anon.”

I admit I was jealous as Howard left (we split the check as usual). He had been able, due to another inheritance, to take a leave from his job to concentrate on his writing. He was moving into a fancy new apartment. He looked like a gentleman of leisure, despite his cheap looking and ill-fitting clothes. But there was a plus side. For now, since he had all this free time and extra money, he wanted to help my shows as well. He didn’t have enough money to really invest, but he approached several of his best pals, and they gave him what he called “front money” (several tens of thousands) which he put in a special bank account toward the day when my musical would be ready to option. That they gave the money with no contract or strings attached (“Just use it the way you see fit”) made me think what great friends he must have.  I included Howard in meetings with other potential producers and he was a great cheerleader for my work. Watching him walk out the door of our diner, I thought, one day, maybe I, too, would be able to be pampered in the spa of the Mandarin Oriental.

 

As Joanna’s health declined, she became confined to her now even smaller West Side flat (“Downsizing is very chic these days,” she said in her raspier-than-ever voice.  Was she still smoking?) and relied on the kindness of friends to walk her dog Rocky (“Short for Rockefeller of course”) and collect her mail at the PO box (“Darling, I can’t have people mailing me things to this address. What will they think?”) I got to visit her once and was shocked that she was living in a studio apartment stuffed with a lifetime of junk and books and DVDs piled to the ceiling.

Our phone calls remained constant, but I was noticing her speech getting more and more slurred. Booze? Pills? I know she was in pain and sometimes she even dozed off in the middle of a call, leaving me hanging and unable to hang up. On good days, she cooed into the phone in a whisper. On one of those calls she told me of visits from Jacques and the family.

“The D’Amboises are the best ever. Jacques brought the kids over and we both sipped Kirs while Charlotte and Christopher danced on a dime for us. And in my tiny flat, I do mean on a dime. I can’t believe how they’ve grown up. He is a gangly teen, but she is gorgeous and astounding. You just have to write a part for her in your next show. She is going to be a star.”

“Does she sing?
“Who cares? Did Zorina? Did Markarova? They danced. That’s better than singing. I’m helping Jacques with the City Center Gala. He brought me lists of donors and I’m stuffing envelopes. It keeps me from going mad.”

It was hard for me to imagine that Joanna let a huge ballet star into her more than humble one-room apartment. She wouldn’t even let the mailman in.

“Have you seen the doctor?” I asked.

“He was here last night,” Joanna slurred.

“You have a doctor who makes house calls? At night?”

“Darling. Daddy was a diplomat. They all knew him. If you didn’t love Daddy you had to be jealous. Jealous like my old friend Bobbi, who won’t even speak to me now. She called last week and said I was a liar. Me? A liar. Can you imagine?”

“Why would she say that?”

“I had no idea. She got back some Christmas card saying “Return to sender. No such person at this address” and accused me of lying about where I lived.”

 

“I need to ask you a question,” my Facebook friend from Miami typed. “You seem to know Howard very well. I mean off line and all. You know we met in person when I was in New York and we went to the theatre together. Well, something so odd happened. He gave me his address and the Christmas card I sent came back as undeliverable. No such person lives here. What do you make of that?”

What did I make of that? I made light of it.

“Well, he’s not quite moved in and maybe the doorman didn’t know his name or maybe it’s a roommate situation and the lease is not in his name but I know that his piano was hoisted up the side of the building and taken in through the window. So he has to be moving in soon.”

“Yeah…he told me that too. But when I told Howard that the card came back, he said to just send it again care of the doorman. And guess what?  It came back again. Undeliverable. No such person lives here.”

I just pooh-poohed it as one of those oddities of New York City life.

“And then there was the time I tried to walk him home after the theatre and as we approached Lincoln Towers, he said he needed something in the CVS and would I wait.  I waited outside for a half hour. He never came out. So I went home.”

I had no answer for that one.

The next Friday Howard and I sat in our usual booth at the usual diner.

“So what did the email say?” I asked over my clam chowder.

“It said come and talk. So I did. They told me that when they cleaned the painting they also put it under a scope to see if there was anything underneath. Painters in those days frequently painted over other works. So they scoped it out and they told me, now sit down for this…”

“I seldom stand at this diner.”

“Underneath my Aunt’s pretty Paris street is a Rembrandt sketch.”

“Wow! What are you going to do? Is the MET going to buy it?”

“No. They advised me that unless I want to keep it, I should auction it off at Christie’s. So that’s what I’m going to do. On September 6th, it goes on the block.”

September 6th came rolling around at about the same time as I met with a director who wanted to do my musical at his theatre in New Jersey. Just as I was getting to the meeting, I got a text. “Five million!”

“What?”

“The painting went to a small European museum for five million dollars!”

I could not resist using the most famous three letters in texting history: OMG

At the meeting I was told that the powers that be loved my show and wanted to produce it.  I felt on top of the world. Getting a show you wrote produced makes you feel like you literally own the theatre in which it plays. It means you are part of a family once again. The author is the father, the creator of the family of actors, designers, directors, ushers and even the people who clean under the seats. Your words and music have gathered the whole glorious clan together. By typing “curtain up” you are powerful and in control.  My head was spinning with delight.

But…there is always a but. The theatre, like most regional theatres across the United States, was without the Federal funding that other nations enjoyed, and could only do a new musical, with all of its extra costs, if an outside backer or producer could bring in about four or five hundred grand to their limited budget. This, they called, “enhancing the production.”  A little bell went off in my head and after the meeting I called Howard.

“Yes,” he said. “I will put in three hundred grand and raise the rest. This is really going to happen.”

I could not believe my ears. My musical was about to get on a stage and Howard was becoming my producer and backer. Even though he said he had done that California reading without my help, Howard never spoke of his own musical again, putting all his passion and energy into mine instead. Meetings were arranged, opening nights were attended. Before one of those openings, Howard told me that the money was now wired into his bank account, in fact the five million had now been upped to 5.5.

“So dinner is on me.”

We feasted at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Okay, he still didn’t know how to be rich, but, although I was never invited to indulge, those Mandarin Oriental Spa treatments were coming fast and furious.

“Is this really going to happen?” my collaborator asked at the usual booth in the usual diner.

“It is,” answered Howard with confidence. We proceeded to split the check three ways. The time for the final negotiations and contract signing and check writing was upon us sometime before Thanksgiving.

And then Howard got sick and had to have an operation.

 

I started to get calls from Joanna’s gay friend, Billy. I knew him as the guy who walked Rockefeller, picked up her mail and bought her the cigarettes that would kill her. Except now he told me that it was his apartment and he was letting Joanna stay there because she had no place else to go. She had not worked in a year and did not have any money left. Her doctor bills and credit card debts were piling up in his mailbox. He told me that she was asleep now and not to let on when she called, but could I help out in any way? Me? I had no money to spare. I asked about Jacques and that high-toned ballet crowd. Couldn’t they help? But Billy, who was younger than I was, didn’t know who they were.

 

“I’m in the hospital and they are going to take out the tumor,” read the instant message on my screen in a box near Howard’s photo.

“Oh, my Lord. What tumor?” I typed

“They found a tumor in a routine exploratory exam. It’s near my liver and the size of a walnut. They have to operate today. I’m very scared.”

“Of course you are. But where are you? What hospital? Can I help with anything?”

There was no response. I was horrified. My friend was going under the knife and I could be of no help. I got in touch with the theatre and told them what was going on. They already knew, as Howard had sent them an email with the same information. The people at the theatre wanted to know where they could send flowers. I told them I had no clue where he was, but that I would find out. I felt like the worst friend who ever lived.

The next day another instant message greeted me when I turned on the computer.

“I am still groggy from the drugs, but they said that the tumor was benign and I can go home soon.”

“Really? Don’t they want to keep you a few days?”

“They don’t like to keep patients too long anymore.”

“Can I come and get you and help you home?”

“Don’t worry. I’ll be fine. I’m so relieved that the tumor is not cancerous. I will make another appointment with the theatre about the money and contract so we can move forward. I know they have a deadline about announcing the show.”

“Thank you so much. But please take care of yourself first.”

“I need to sleep now. Thank God for morphine.”

And he was gone, leaving me once again with depression and guilt.

The next day Howard told me he was home but in terrible pain. He felt like someone had cut him open. Well, they did, I told him. He would not tell me who was taking care of him or how I could help. He was toughing this out all by himself. Meetings were again postponed and there was nothing to do but wait. I didn’t have to wait long. Only as long as the next day.

“In the post-op exam, they found some blood clots so they have to go in again. I am checking back into the hospital tonight.”

Just the year before my oldest friend, Alan had his gall bladder removed laparoscopically. Less than a week after the surgery, Alan dropped dead on his kitchen floor of a blood clot that went straight to his heart. I was devastated then and terrified now.

After the minor surgery, once again Howard was quickly released and sent home. He IM-ed me that he was exhausted and would sleep for days. The next day the instant message said:

“I’m bleeding from my rectum. Something is terribly wrong.”

Back to the hospital Howard went and more meetings about my show were postponed. And suddenly it was December. Christmas. And the deadline loomed.

I was miserable as Howard told me that more operations were in the offing. That there was the possibility that his kidneys had shut down and that he needed dialysis. That another tumor was growing. That his diabetes might mean the loss of a leg.

Finally, I gave up my dream.

“Howard, what does a show matter when you are fighting for your life? Maybe you should get in touch with the theatre and let them know that this may not happen and we can postpone till you are well.”

With that burden lifted, I started to wonder who could take care of Howard. Where were these other friends? The ones who gave money for my show. Wait! I had met Howard’s cousin, Dana. Why had she not posted anything on line? Why was she showing photos of herself in Florida cavorting in the waves? Didn’t she know that Howard was this sick? Everything was such a secret.  But this was family. So I contacted Dana and said, “I am concerned. Have you talked to Howard?”

She was calm, but seemed to grasp the situation.

“I’m talking to him at 3pm today. I’ll call you after I do.”

She called at precisely 3:15.

“So how is he?”

“Fine. A little worried.”

“What did the doctor say?”

“What doctor?”

“At the hospital.”

“What hospital? I talked to him at work.”

Boom! Crash! Heart on the floor! Blackout!

 

When Billy called me to tell me that Joanna had died, I was in shock. Joanna dead? I had started to think that her Cancer was another of her affectations, to make her seem more glamorous and Garbo-esque. But now she was really gone. How could it be? And now who would puff me up and make my ego float around the room six or seven times a day?

“The funeral will be at Frank E. Campbell’s,” Billy told me with pride.

“Wow! That’s some expensive funeral home.”

“Yep. The big one on Madison Avenue. Only the best for our Joanna.”

“But who’s paying?”

My question was answered with a dial tone.

 

Howard’s cousin’s voice was harsh and sympathetic at the same time.

“Don’t you know my cousin is a big liar?”

I listened for an hour. I could barely hear the words: “Howard was always a liar. His grandmother knew when he was five. His mother and father knew when he was a teenager. The state of Florida knew when they booted him out and asked him not to return. His sister knew when he ran the family business into the ground after his parents died. All of Broadway knew when he was blackballed after his first Broadway job 25 years ago. And we have no idea what his life is. He was housesitting for a friend and when the friend came home, the doorman said that there were men going in and out every hour on the hour from midnight to dawn. Then there’s his gambling addiction. I mean, everyone knows.”

Everyone knew but me. I grasped at the last straw.

“But what about the painting?”

“What painting?”

“The painting your Aunt left Howard that fetched 5.5 million at the auction in September. He was going to give you part of that. He told me.”

She was incredulous and certain.

“There is no painting. And if he has 5.5 million dollars, why is he still working in a lighting store six days a week in Yonkers? And why is he homeless?”

What!

“He doesn’t have any ID,” she said. His identity was stolen and…”

“No ID? Then how did he go to LA for the reading of his show? How did he go to Florida and solicit money for my show? How did he…”

Dana plowed on.

“He can’t even cash a check. He sends his paychecks to his sister in Oregon and she cashes them and sends him money in the mail. He has no bank account or credit cards either. He lives from day to day in boarding houses or cheap hotels in Yonkers. He doesn’t have a pot to piss in, let alone five million dollars. That’s a laugh. Him giving me money! I’ve been lending him subway fare for years. How dare he drag you into his mess of a life! Wait till I tell him off!”

After the phone call was over, I did some more exploratory work with Facebook friends. It seems that Howard lied to each in different ways.

“He told me that he went to jail for embezzlement.”

“He told me he lived in his car.”

“He told me he was raped on the subway nightly.”

I realized that, like the famous Mary McCarthy quote about Lillian Hellman, everything Howard had ever said, including “and” and “but,” was a lie.

He had no music for his own musical. He had no musical. He never had a new apartment in the swanky Lincoln Towers with a grand piano being hoisted up the side of the building. He never hired me to direct for his alma mater or his California reading. He never raised one penny from one friend and never flew to Florida or anywhere else to do so. He never did those spa treatments and nights at the Mandarin Oriental. He never had a tumor or operation or blood clot (that one was the cruelest of all), nor was he bleeding from his rectum. Not yet anyway.

There was no painting. There was no auction. There was no five million bucks.

And now, I had no show.

The powers that be at the theatre suspected it, they said.

“When we showed him the budget, he didn’t raise an eyebrow. He didn’t even try to add up our numbers. He just said it was fine. We thought, this guy can’t be for real. Then he told us that his lawyer was off in Switzerland skiing until the New Year and that the money was not really in his bank account yet. He wept bitter tears when he told us that.”

I never saw a single tear. How could I ever face him again and not punch out every inch of his face?

I thought about Rose in Gypsy finally asking herself the tough questions: “Why did I do it? What did it get me?”

Why did Howard do it? What did it get him? He didn’t steal anything tangible. No money was lost.  So what did he get?  A year or two as part of my world? Did it feed his insatiably starving soul to be the big shot who could save the day? Did he have such low self-esteem that he thought he had to make up a painting to buy my friendship? Or could he just not help himself?

The lies Howard told over a lifetime could not be explained away by his current mendacities. His decades of fantasies were legion. And surely, like Rose in Gypsy, his actions over the years got him “one quick look” as each person in his life left him.  Alone on that subway at night and powerless. That subway that did not stop at the Manderin Oriental Hotel Spa. After asking myself over and over, I finally realized I would never know why. And even if I did, even if he apologized, what could I possibly say to him?

I had no idea what I would say, but I knew I had to say something. So, I wrote to him on Facebook.

“When can we get together?”

By this time, Howard has surely heard from his cousin that the jig was up and that I knew everything about him was a lie.

He responded almost immediately with an instant message.

“Can’t see you now. Have to confer with my surgeons about further operations. Talk soon.”

I never heard from him again.

A few weeks later, I tossed the toy red car into the trash forever.

 

Entering Frank E. Campbell’s was scary and also awe inspiring. JOANNA FIRST, the sign said. Never second, never third. Always First. When I entered the chapel proper, I was astounded. It was packed with people. Joanna’s world might have shrunken over the last years, shrunken to a one room apartment shared with Billy, a morphine drip and three dogs. But here and now at her funeral were at least three hundred mourners. I sat in my assigned seat between the accountant she made me hire and the lawyer who bilked me out of 900 bucks. As the unconventional service began, people got up to speak. Jack McMann, the Broadway director, was first.

“Joanna and I grew up together…we were brother and…”

He was followed by Clay Forrester.

“Goddard Lieberson and Zorina introduced us…”

The piece de resistance was Jacques D’Amboise who only spoke a few words, but joyously danced in the aisle in tribute to Joanna.

It has all been true. Everything she ever told me. She knew them all and they knew her. Now that she was gone and not some sick woman they wanted to avoid, they could all admit it again. And show their love. The fucking hypocrites.

When I lifted my mouth off the floor, I too got up to speak. To tell the assorted crowd what Joanna had done for me. How she would inflate my ego six or seven times a day, which, in this business of happy ego-deflators meant that I could survive another day.

When I got back to my seat, I noticed that there were goodie bags under every chair. Only she could have planned that. Now I knew who arranged and paid for the whole affair. Now I knew why she died so broke. She knew where she was going and she was going to go in style. The deposed Romanoff Princess was back in the palace. I grabbed my goodie bag and tucked it under my arm as the service ended.

Outside Frank E’s, after saying goodbye to anyone I knew or didn’t know, I opened the bag and took out “Harrods’s Finest Selected Stilton Cheese” in a port ceramic jar container with a black lid. A note was attached with tape.

It was hand written in her beautiful private girl’s school hand. It was the first words she spoke to me: I’m Joanna First! We are going to be great friends because I am going to do everything in my power to make sure you become everything you deserve. And that means rich and famous.

As I walked down Madison Avenue in the beautiful spring air, I thought, “Ain’t it the truth!”

 

Interview with the author


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About Stephen Cole 0 Articles
Stephen Cole is an award winning, internationally produced, published and recorded writer. His produced musicals include After the Fair, The Night of the Hunter, Dodsworth, Saturday Night at Grossingers, Casper-The Musical, Inventing Mary Martin, Piano Bar, The Road to Qatar!, Time after Time, Rock Odyssey, Merlin's Apprentice, Aspire (the first American musical to be commissioned and performed in the Middle East), and others have been produced from New York City to London to Australia to Qatar. Several are available on CD and have been published as well. His awards include the prestigious Edward Kleban Award, five Dallas Theatre League Awards, an Outer Critic's Circle nomination for Best Off Broadway Musical, an Honorable Mention for Best Lyrics from the NY Musical Theatre Festival and the Gilman-Gonzalez Falla Commendation for his work in Musical Theatre. His books include a biography of Noel Coward and That Book About That Girl (recently republished digitally), an official companion to the famous Marlo Thomas TV series and the critically acclaimed Marni Nixon’s memoir I Could Have Sung All Night (soon to be a major motion picture). Stephen has written material for such stars as Christine Baranski, Marlo Thomas, JoAnne Worley, Christine Ebersole, Chita Rivera, Hal Linden, Gavin MacLeod, Dorothy Loudon, Liz Smith, Mike Wallace and many others. As a producer/director he has put together an all-star tribute to Kander and Ebb for the Morgan Library starring Liza Minnelli, Barbara Cook and David Hyde Pierce, and a series of CD’s culled from his private collection entitled Mermania. Current projects include Goin' Hollywood, Merman's Apprentice The Black and White Ball for the theatre and a novel in progress about Ethel Merman and Mary Martin and their fabulous rivalry and secret friendship entitled Sacred Monsters.

21 Comments

  1. A brilliant blend of trust and betrayal; two friendships that bring the author to both joy and misery. The story is told with all the delicacy of a poem; all the intrigue of a good mystery. One read is not enough! Bravo Stephen Cole!

  2. I so totally enjoyed this short short story by Mr. Cole.
    The characters are Alive! The dialogue is totally real and the plot is ingenious and totally believable in New York City. .
    I too have known some Howard’s and Joanne’s in my years a singer, writer and nightclub manager.
    The reality of these characters is astounding.
    This could be a brilliiant film in my opinion.
    Thank you for printing it.
    .

  3. This was really entertaining. One of the best short stories I’ve read in quite a while. Kudos to Mr. Cole for once again showcasing his talents and sharing his gift of the pen. I look forward to reading more of his work!

  4. I enjoy Stephen Cole’s writing very much. His characterizations are so realistic, and I was held in suspense throughout. The musical version will be brilliant. Bravo!

  5. I love it! Reality is ephemeral, nothing is as it seems. You had me laughing out loud at this tragi-comedy —
    I was besieged by a pair of giant lips rushing toward my behind ….
    just after I had my umpteenth bike stolen….
    photographed more than the Kardashians…..
    Remember that pool party when Ellis was still alive? And then the one when he was dead. Even more fun…..
    “I seldom stand at this diner.”…
    Nor was he bleeding from his rectum. Not yet anyway….

  6. Stephen Cole’s writing is just fantastic and real. Of course I cried at the last line. This is a tribute to his great pacing. I think what is so powerful about this piece is how it touches reality in a deep way. So many of us have relationships with each of these prototypes: The sincere over the top one who seems like she is lying and the quiet liar who seems like he is telling the truth … and the anguish you experience when you find out the reality.

  7. Excellent detail wrapped around two very vivid characters. We all know a Howard and Joanna. What separates this tale from the others less well told is that in addition to seeing the flaws in the personae we start to recognize, albeit uncomfortably, that a bit of both Howard and Joanna reside in us all.

    In addition it allowed us s brief visit to the world of day to day mendacity and frustration involved in the creative world. The amount of pure bs that one goes through to produce whatever creation is currently en vogue. A masterpiece does not spring fully developed from pristine lives. While developing these characters we are allowed to see the creative process the author is going through both as the protagonist and as the author of this story. A writer writing about a writer. His autobiographical aspect rings true.

    A simple observation, however. It was established that everyone in the story is Jewish. “We all were.” This makes me question the returned Christmas card. Many of my Jewish friends send cards to their gentile friends, but I was unaware that it was common to send amongst each other.

    Thanks for the enjoyable piece.

  8. Excellent writing. Intriguing and when the score is complete an ideal small-cast musical, perhaps a curtain raiser to a larger show, certainly a companion piece to two other one-acts.

  9. I remember you telling me snippets of this story at Sardi’s. Going through the written words brings out much more information and nuance of this tragicomic tale. To be devastated by who you thought was a friend and uplifted by someone who seemed, by all accounts, to be a sycophant. As I was reading this, I was picturing as a film in my mind. To know that it will be a musical makes it much more thrilling. I hope to see the finished product someday.

  10. I thoroughly enjoyed this short story! It really gets to the heart of human quirks and relationships, and Stephen Cole crafted this tale so skillfully! I hope to see more from this talented writer!

  11. Beautiful story. I always wondered what happened to that red roadster. I can’t wait to read another story by this clever and entertaining writer.

  12. Really like a trip backstage in an old theater, where you can see both the magic and what lies behind it, sometimes heartbreaking.

    As well a story of survival.

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