Memories of a provincial in New York
The skyline where these memories were manufactured is visible in the distance in “View from a Queens Window,” by Alanna S. Graboyes, asgraboyesart.com.
Four decades ago, I failed to send a thank-you note to Yoko Ono for the hospitality she showed to me and to Alanna (my then-girlfriend, now-wife, and always artist). Should Ms. Ono see this missive, the snacks were delicious, the apartment was beautiful, and Alanna’s eyeglasses—to her profound regret—were undamaged. (Explanation below.)
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On this quiet Sunday, over coffee, I’ll recount some chance occurrences in New York City with famous actors and musicians, a famous actor’s dog, a man who hunted Nazis, a man who was hunted by Communists, and—most memorably—Yoko Ono and her son, Sean. In 1980, I moved from small-town Virginia to spend eight years in Manhattan. Immediately upon crossing the Hudson, I began bumping into A-List celebrities and, inexplicably, welcomed those encounters with bland diffidence. (The provincial within me would whisper, “Stop pretending you’re not excited,” but my newly minted Inner New Yorker simply responded with what Tom Wolfe had labeled “the primordial shrug.”)
From Humble Origins
It was not always thus. The first celebrity I accidentally stumbled across was in the late 60s/early 70s. Actor Troy Donahue visited my hometown, Petersburg, Virginia, to do a ribbon-cutting at a new theater or bank. As he crossed the parking lot at Walnut Mall, a gaggle of locals (mostly teenage girls) carried “We love you, Troy!” signs. I knew his career had flagged and that he was not doing well financially. Nevertheless, I was excited to see a flesh-and-blood movie star—even one reduced, in his own words, to “judging beauty contests and opening banks.” (A few weeks back, in “Transience of Aesthetics,” I mentioned him, making me one of the vanishingly small number of writers who have mentioned Troy Donahue more than once in this decade.)
(Side note: In the late 1950s, early 1960s, my parents did far better than Troy Donahue in the happenstance department. They were having lunch in Richmond’s then-premiere hotel, the John Marshall. Nearby, one of the other diners was an African American man—an almost unthinkable sight in a state fully absorbed in a last-gasp attempt to preserve segregation. My parents thought he looked familiar and quietly debated his identity. They decided he was a local businessman whom they had seen previously. The next morning, Mom awakened to her clock radio blaring the news: “In a speech in Richmond yesterday, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. …” My mother shook Dad awake and said “THAT’S who we had lunch with yesterday!”)
Beginning in August 1980, however, the Virginian impressed by Troy Donahue was instantly a jaded New Yorker. One evening, I made my way slowly through the mob at V&T Pizza, carrying a large, hot pie toward the only available table. Suddenly, the front door swung open and in rushed Art Garfunkel, whose music I had loved for a decade-and-a-half, and Penny Marshall, of Laverne and Shirley fame. In Petersburg, my reaction would have been, “WoWZa!!! ArT GaRfUnKeL ANd pENnY MaRSHaLL!!!” In Manhattan, it was, “Crap. Art Garfunkel and Penny Marshall just took MY damned table.” (Before the small-town voice in my head had time to offer an alternative viewpoint, the Inner New Yorker told it to “Shut the hell up.”)
Another time, the short pathway from our apartment to my classroom building at Columbia was blocked off. Woody Allen, then still a cinematic giant, was shooting a scene with film legend José Ferrer for their upcoming A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. Rather than excitement and interest, my reaction was irritation at having to walk all the way around campus.
One night, on a crowded avenue, there stood Martin Balsam. He turned toward me and, for what reason I cannot say, he assumed the same expression he wore in the seconds before Norman Bates (“Mother”) attacked Detective Arbogast with a knife and shoved him down the stairs.
Another day, I entered Chock Full o’Nuts for a cup of coffee. Sitting at the counter was Brad Dourif, in a rumpled trench coat, with rain-soaked hair, looking as if had just slipped away from Nurse Ratched. Dourif’s performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was stellar, and the provincial in me wished to tell him that. The New Yorker within me said, in a surprisingly sympathetic voice, “Just get your coffee. Maybe a bagel, too.”
This attitude of diffidence didn’t carry over to celebrities whom I paid to see. My money went to see Dustin Hoffman, John Malkovich, Ben Kingsley, James Earl Jones, Frank Zappa, Nina Simone, Abdullah Ibrahim, John McLaughlin, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Stéphane Grappelli, Sarah Vaughan, Wynton Marsalis, and countless others. There was no limit to my thrill at those events.
But some of the more interesting encounters were neither paid for nor entirely random. In these cases, my attitude was neither disdain nor ecstasy but, rather, detached disbelief. (“Am I really here with this person?”). A friend who worked for the New York Philharmonic once took me on a private elevator at Lincoln Center. During the ride up, a violinist proudly told Itzhak Perlman that he had just returned from Berlin, where he had performed with legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan. Perlman responded, “Not bad. But I … have just returned … from Sesame Street, where I performed with … Big Bird.” (Even the Inner New Yorker thought this was cool.)
One of Alanna’s friends introduced us to celebrity canines. She was a professional dogwalker whose clients included Mary Tyler Moore and Robert Duvall. We regularly encountered her while she walked Moore’s golden retriever, Dash. Several years later, in Richmond, Virginia, a woman with a magnificent golden retriever said to us, “You recently moved from New York City. Well, one of her puppies lives in New York. And his owner is Mary Tyler Moore!” I said, purposefully nonchalantly, “Of course. We know her puppy personally. His name is Dash.” The woman looked as if she had seen a ghost. I used this remarkable coincidence in teaching statistics—another of the improbable-but-probable occurrences that I wrote about in “Impossible Things before Breakfast.” (BTW, Michael Mark, the musician whose band played at our wedding had also played at Moore’s wedding a few months earlier. He also wrote the theme song to “Entertainment Tonight.”)
While studying at Columbia, I had a gig for several years as a pianist at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. I provided background music for their receptions and, in exchange, got free admission to their unbelievable lineup of performances. But one of the real perks of that gig was my friendship with the Cathedral shop manager, who personally knew the entire jazz world. On a regular basis, I found myself going to bars with great performers. The nicest of all was legendary pianist Hank Jones. Decades later, I looked Jones up on the Internet and learned that he was the pianist who accompanied Marilyn Monroe’s rendition of “Happy Birthday”—sung to President Kennedy as she rose from a cake.
Painting: “Around Midnight,” by Alanna S. Graboyes, asgraboyesart.com.
Those Who Stared into the Faces of Evil
Another St. John the Divine acquaintance was John-Michael Tebelak, writer/director whose Godspell enjoyed enormous success in those years. One evening, at the apartment of Tebelak’s parents, Alanna and I encountered a gentleman who shared his harrowing tale and his own brush-with-celebrity story. Eugen Loebl was a 70-something gentleman with old-school Central European manners. He listened intently as Alanna and I discussed our little lives on Morningside Heights. Then, he calmly described his own tale—terrifying and triumphant. Loebl had been a defendant in the 1952 Slansky Trial. Fourteen Czechoslovak officials were charged with treason and espionage. 11 were hanged, and Loebl spent years in a tiny cell, wearing uncomfortable shoes, walking back and forth all day to maintain his strength and sanity. He told us this with the demeanor that one might expect from someone recounting a minor fender-bender from decades before.
Having heard that I was an economist, Loebl shared another story. He had served in London as part of Czechoslovakia’s government-in-exile after the Nazis overran his country. He was some sort of socialist or social democrat and became acquainted with an older couple who regularly had breakfast in his hotel cafe. The older man heard that Loebl was an economist and discussed with him the then-fashionable Keynesian economics. Loebl said he sparred with his breakfast companion, describing the fallacies of Keynesianism and arguing for the superiority of his own economic philosophy. These breakfast debates, Loebl told us, were fierce and friendly. One day, after the couple left, a friend of Loebl asked, “How did you become friends with Keynes and his wife?” Loebl was gobsmacked. It suddenly occurred to him that the older gentleman’s wife had a Russian accent and looked like an aging ballerina. And, indeed, the pair were John Maynard Keynes and his ex-ballerina wife, Lydia Lopokova. Loebl told us that he never again felt comfortable discussing economics with Keynes, despite the fact that Keynes had always taken his criticism respectfully.
Like Loebl, I learned that I, too, had occasional chance encounters with unrecognized giants. One very dear resident of our Columbia apartment building was a courtly, soft-spoken professor of French literature—Daniel Penham. We would often chat with Monsieur Penham as he took his aging dog, César, up and down the elevator. Decades later, the Internet provided stunning revelations. Kindly Monsieur Penham was born Siegfried Oppenheim, and “Daniel Penham” was his nom de guerre. He had fought with the Resistance and made the Nazis’ most-wanted list—escaping their grasp via Morocco. After the War, he returned to Germany as a high American intelligence official and ferociously pursued closeted ex-Nazis. We often thanked Monsieur Penham for his small favors. Here, I’ll offer a posthumous thanks for the large favors we never knew of in his lifetime.
An Afternoon with Yoko Ono
Finally, the most sublime of these encounters was our afternoon with Yoko Ono, a few months after John Lennon died. Alanna’s colleague had a daughter in Sean Lennon’s class at the Ethical Culture School. The daughter was invited to Sean’s birthday party, and mid-afternoon, the colleague said she was going to pick her daughter up. Alanna, being a New Yorker, suggested that perhaps Bob and Alanna should help her pick up her daughter, and she agreed. We expected the guard to hand the daughter to us at the door to the building. Instead, we were invited up, and when the elevator doors opened, Ms. Ono welcomed us in and offered refreshments. We stayed for perhaps two hours. At some point young Sean hurled a miniature football into the air, hitting Alanna right in the face and knocking her glasses to one side. She asked whether they were visibly damaged. I said, no, they looked fine. She frowned and said, “Damn it!” I asked why, and she said, “I was hoping to walk into the office tomorrow and have people ask, ‘What happened to your glasses?’ Then I could respond, matter-of-factly, ‘Oh, I was at Yoko Ono’s apartment yesterday, and young Sean beaned me in the face with a football.’” Somewhere in the house today, I have a little Kodak film case with some mixed nuts that I kept as a souvenir. (As a poignant aside, young Sean’s birthday was also John Lennon’s birthday.)
Thank you, Ms. Ono, for the kindness you showed that day to two appreciative strangers.
Enjoy BASTIAT’S WINDOW, where you’ll encounter economics, ethics, health, technology, culture and—as you know from reading this essay—celebrities and their dogs.